Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.

The Chalk Man, by C.J. Tudor**

It’s a rare book that I find abrasive right out of the gate, especially since there are no controversial social messages here, just a mystery that I didn’t like and didn’t finish. Thanks go to Crown Publishing and Net Galley for the review copy, which I received free and early in 2017. I should have written a review long ago, of course, but I found it hard to reconcile my antipathy for this story—a debut, no less—with the nearly unanimous adulation expressed by other reviewers. I am still a bit bewildered, but there it is.

This is a book that tries too hard. There are too many cutesy nicknames, and the structure of the plot feels gimmicky and formulaic, as well as mighty unlikely. Of course, most mysteries have aspects that are unlikely because most real-life murders and other mysterious doings have logical, obvious, dull explanations. We agree to pretend the murder mystery is plausible in exchange for being entertained. The problem is that I wasn’t, and so I couldn’t.

Two other factors that contributed to my grumpiness were the overwhelmingly male list of characters, and the cultural collision between British fiction and my brain. I’ve read and enjoyed some British fiction; if not, I wouldn’t have requested this galley. But here the culture and jargon are thick on the ground, and the inner narrative feels endless.

I no longer have to be concerned that I will crush this author’s hopes and dreams; Tudor’s debut is a huge success both in terms of sales and the corresponding enthusiasm of its readership. This author has gone on to publish more books, and I have had the good sense not to request those this time. Ultimately this came down to taste more than anything else, but I have to call ‘em as I see them, and I found nothing to love, apart from a compelling jacket and an attention-getting title.

The Paris Diversion, by Chris Pavone*****

Chris Pavone is the real deal. The Paris Diversion sees the return of CIA employee Kate Moore, the protagonist from his first novel, The Expats. This taut, intense thriller is his best to date, and that’s saying a good deal. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Crown, but you can get it tomorrow, May 7, 2019.

Kate wears many hats, moving deftly from professional spy to primary caretaker of two children, one of whom is medically fragile. Her husband Dexter calls himself an investor, but he’s basically just a weasel. His weak character comes into play in a big way in this story as he is tied to a shady financial deal that in turn is tied–though he doesn’t know it– to a terrifying terrorist event that takes place in the heart of France:

“She gasps. She is surprised at her reaction, like an amateur. She has never before seen anything like this. No one here has. What she sees:  a man is standing all alone in the middle of the vast open space, looking tiny. He’s wearing a bulky vest, and a briefcase sits at his feet, the sort of luggage that in action-adventure films follows around the president of the United States, a shiny case lugged around by a tall square-jawed man wearing a military uniform, a handsome extra with no speaking lines. The nuclear codes…Yes, Dexter was right: that’s a suitcase bomb.”

Events unfold seen from the viewpoints of several different characters. In addition to Kate, we have the bomb-wearer; his American driver; the sniper assigned to take the bomb-wearer out; billionaire Hunter Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am Forsyth; and a mysterious woman using the name Susanna. Points of view change frequently, and the brief chapters become even briefer as the story unfolds, creating even more suspense. Pavone (that’s three syllables—Puh-vo-KNEE) has keen insight into the lies weak people tell themselves to justify their poor choices, and at times he is wickedly funny. Favorites here are the internal monologue of our ass hat billionaire; the moment Kate takes down the security guard; and the exchange between Kate and Hunter’s assistant, Schuyler.

Because I spend several hours of every day reading, I can almost always put a book down, even an excellent one. For the best books, I reserve good-sized blocks of time when I won’t be interrupted, and these are the ones I read with joy, rather than out of duty to the publisher. But it’s been awhile since I stayed up late because I had to know how a book ended. The prose here is so tightly woven that every word is important; in most books of the genre, there’s a winding down period at the end of the book after the climax has been reached and the problem resolved. In contrast, Pavone moves at warp speed until almost the last word of the last chapter.

I have rarely seen a male writer that can craft a believable female character, and Pavone does that. I appreciate his respect for women. In addition, it appears that Kate may have met her own Moriarti, and so I suspect both she and her nemesis will be back. I hope so.

To say more is to waste words, an unfair tribute to a bad ass writer who wastes none. Get this book and read it. You won’t be sorry.