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 Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

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.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson*****

“The memory of an elephant, the cleverness of a fox, the guile of a serpent, and the fierceness of a panther.”

Marie-Madeleine Fourcaude ran the largest spy network in France during World War II. Charismatic, organized, intelligent and completely fearless, she was possessed of such obvious leadership skills that even very traditional Frenchmen (and a few Brits as well) came to recognize and respect her authority and ability. I had never heard of her before this galley became available; thanks to go Net Galley and Random House. This book is for sale now. 

Fourcade was born into a wealthy family, and this fact almost kept me from reading this biography. Fortunately, others read it first and recommended it, and once I began reading I quickly caught onto the fact that no one without financial resources could have initiated and organized this network. At the outset, there was no government behind them and no funding other than what they could contribute themselves or scrounge up through the kinds of contacts that rich people have. There are a few fawning references to some of her associates—a princess here, a Duke there—that grate on my working class sensibilities, but they are fleeting. 

Fourcade’s organization ultimately would include men and women from all classes, from magnates and royals to small businessmen, train conductors, waitresses, postal clerks and so on. Some were couriers delivering information about Nazi troop placement and movement, U-boats and harbors and so forth, whereas others quietly eavesdropped as they went about their daily routines. Once they were able to network with the British, the organization became better supplied and funded, and it had an enormous impact on the fascist occupiers, which in turn drew more enemy attention to the resistance itself; among the greatest heroes were those that piloted the Lysander planes that delivered supplies and rescued members that were about to be captured. But not everyone was rescued; a great many were tortured, then killed. Fourcade herself was arrested twice, and both times escaped. 

If you had tried to write this woman’s story as fiction, critics would have said it lacked credibility. 

In reading about Fourcade, I learned a great deal more about the Resistance than I had previously known; in other nonfiction reading this aspect of the Allied effort was always on the edges and in the shadows, not unlike the spies themselves. In addition, I also came to understand that France was barely, barely even a member of the Alliance. The British bombed a ship to prevent fascists from seizing it, but they didn’t evacuate it first, and an entire ship full of French sailors were killed, leading a large segment of the French population to hate the British more than the Germans. Then too, there was a sizable chunk of the French government that welcomed the fascists. 

Revisionist histories will have us believe that the Nazis were opposed but that France was powerless to stop them, and for some that was true; yet the ugly truth is that it was the French themselves that incorporated anti-Semitism into their governmental structure before the Germans demanded it. Vichy cops had to take an oath “against Gaullist insurrection and Jewish leprosy.” When planning D-Day, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t even want to include the French in the planning or even inform them that the Allies were invading. Let them find out the same way that the Germans would, he suggested to Churchill. But the British insisted on bringing in friendly French within the orbit of De Gaulle, not to mention those around a pompous, difficult general named Henri Gouroud, a hero from World War I who had to be more or less tricked into meeting with the Allies at the Rock of Gibraltar. The guy was a real piece of work, and some of the humorous passages that are included to lighten up an otherwise intense story focus on him.

I have never read Olson’s work before, but the author’s note says that she writes about “unsung heroes—individuals of courage and conscience who helped change their country and the world but who, for various reasons, have slipped into the shadows of history.” Now that I’ve read her work once, I will look for it in the future. 

Highly recommended to historians, feminists, and those that love a good spy story, too.

A Brotherhood of Spies, by Monte Reel****

BrotherhoodSpies3.5 stars rounded up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

The story begins with a US spy plane being shot down over Soviet (Russian) airspace in 1960. This is embarrassing. Eisenhower’s people decide to make something up; after all, nobody survives an airplane crash over dry land. Moreover, the pilot was provided with a cyanide capsule—James Bond style—so even if he survived, he must be dead; likewise, the plane was likely blown to bits, with not much left for the Soviet investigators to learn.

Let’s say it was a weather plane. It wandered off course, and those mean Soviets shot it down.

But oh dear, this is even more embarrassing: the pilot lived, and he didn’t feel like taking the poison pill. Would you?  So the Russians know what he was flying, and they know who he is. They’re telling the world.

Just reading the teaser for this book, I was hooked. But just as a brilliant writer can take dross and make a good tale of it, so can an indifferent one take compelling information and make it into a snooze. For me, this was not an entertaining read. I had agreed to write about it, so I had to read it, and it felt like work.

I want to be fair here: there are people that will read this book and like it. There’s a lot of technical information about the spy plane, and about many other spy planes, some of which were never built. Apart from the truly bizarre one that was supposed to be landed on its belly (no landing gear), or the ridiculous idea of a nuclear powered plane, I found my attention drifting during these descriptions. But I am not interested in aviation, and if you are, you may like this.

The other aspect that causes my attention to wander is the history 101 aspect of it. I’m a retired history teacher. I don’t need an author to walk me through the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs. However, I note that other reviewers came to this work with no knowledge of either, and they are delighted to be clued in. For newbies, count this as a win.

Finally, I have to credit the source work. Reel didn’t take the easy way out. His end notes are first rate.

For those that are relatively new to this chapter of American history, this may be a compelling read. For those interested in the history of American aviation, it is recommended. For those that are well read in the field, maybe not.

This book is now for sale.

Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys***

dangerouscrossingDangerous Crossing is an historical mystery set at the outset of World War II. I was invited to review it by Atria Books and Net Galley; it was published earlier this month, and you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Lily Shepherd, a young woman in need of a fresh start. Her family’s scant resources are tapped in order to send her via cruise ship to Australia, where she is to enter domestic service. On board she meets Max and Eliza Campbell, wealthy, obnoxious, and carrying some skeletons of their own. We have Maria, a Jewish refugee, along with George, a Nazi sympathizer.  Helena and Edward are adult siblings, and there’s romantic tension crackling between Lily and Edward. Along the way are exotic ports of call such as Cairo, Egypt and Ceylon; these are places Lily would never have hoped to see under ordinary circumstances, but fate surprises her.

Rhys does a fine job of managing historical details, and in particular the social stratifications that existed in British society during this time period and the limitations they imposed.  The ending has more than one interesting twist. On the down side, I find the figurative language to be stale at times and the relationships overwrought in places. I felt that the story could do with some tightening up. However, fans of a traditional mystery will find this is a fine mystery to curl up with on a chilly winter night. The varying perspectives of the cruise’s passengers dovetail in many ways with those we see today, and many will notice an eerie familiarity in these characters from an earlier time.

Recommended to those that enjoy cozy mysteries and traditional historical mysteries.

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland***

NeedtoKnow

“My God, Vivian, what’s it going to take for you to trust me?”

 Need to Know is an espionage thriller written by a former CIA analyst. I read it free and early thanks to Random House and Net Galley. This book will be available to the public on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Our story is told in the first person by Vivian Miller, a CIA analyst with a mortgage to meet and four small children. In the course of her research she comes across the identity of someone she knows and then the whole house starts to tumble, as she makes one bad decision after another, punctuated with the occasional wise choice to heighten suspense.  Around the sixty percentile I found myself reading it for giggles as it becomes increasingly clear that our protagonist is as dumb as a box of rocks.

With this in mind, I have devised a drinking game for rowdy book clubs that meet in real life. Here are some ideas:

  • Take a drink every time Vivian refers to Matt as her “rock”.
  • Take two drinks every time she refers to Matt as their children’s “rock”.
  • Take a drink every time you run across the word “ringleader”.
  • Spin around three times and take a drink for every rhetorical question you find in the narrative.
  • Take a drink for every stereotype you see.

 

Spoiler alert (*snerk*): you may want to clear your calendar the day after your book club meets, because it’s going to be a rough one.

Now I understand that there may be abstainers in your drinking book club, patient souls that either really like the people in your club, or that can’t find a book club made up of tea-totters. For those people I have special instructions:

  • Take a drink when you find a well developed character.
  • Take a drink when you find a positive female role model .

 

Another spoiler alert: provide this second group of people with water, because otherwise they are going home thirsty.

I can also recommend this title to women that are newly divorced, mad as hell, and looking for something to throw. For these ladies, I recommend obtaining a hard copy, because you won’t want to ruin your expensive electronic devices. Before commencing with this title, remove pictures, monitors, and china from the wall where you’ll be reading. Broken glass is nobody’s idea of a fun Tuesday night.

“They’re good, the Russians.”

Newly divorced, mad-as-hell, book-throwing women that have recently divorced a Russian man may even want to pre-order a copy. I’d do that right now if I were you.

Купить книгу.

The Spy Who Never Was, by Tom Savage*****

TheSpyWhoNeverI love Savage’s work, and this title is his best to date. I got my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Alibi. You can get it January 9, 2018.

Nora Barton is our protagonist, and she is recruited by Edgar Cole as an unofficial CIA agent—she has been helpful to the Agency before—because of her physical resemblance to someone being targeted by the enemy, an enemy known as TSB.

“Edgar Cole was using her as bait: here, kitty, kitty. Now Nora was in Paris with TSB, and the two of them were playing an elaborate game of I-know-you-know-and-you-know-I-know, and Nora wondered what would happen next in their little charade.”

Nora isn’t allowed to tell her husband, who is an intelligence agent himself, but she tells him some of it anyway. I smile, knowing I would do the same. He tells her not to accept this assignment—absolutely not—but Nora doesn’t take orders from him, and she makes the decision to go.

Savage writes true thrillers. Like his other novels, this one grabs you by the hair on the first page and doesn’t let go. I am accustomed to the traditional story arc, rising toward a climax, but that’s not what we get here; instead, there’s a huge surprise around every corner. My pulse raced while I read this thing, and my blood pressure rose. There are several places in my notes throughout the book that say “Holy crap!” or, “My heart!”

Once in Paris, people start getting dead. That agent that was attacked because he was guarding her—wait a minute, was he guarding her? Nora isn’t sure who she can trust, but happily, she has a personal friend, an elderly fellow now retired from intelligence that lives in Paris. Her friend’s message to her is sobering indeed: “Go home, Mademoiselle.”

Every now and then Savage breaks up the tension for a split second with humor, and I love this. Her mentor in Paris prides himself on his English use, and he misuses idioms in ways that are charming and sometimes very funny, and this is done in a way that doesn’t mock the French or anyone else. Savage is a pro, handling this delicate characteristic deftly. The mentor tells Nora that a spy known as “Le Faulcon” is here to kill her; he is a “Russian hitting man”.

Whoa now. Frankly, I would be on the plane back to the States in a jiffy; but then, I would not have gone at all. Nora, on the other hand, is a badass.

This leads me to my very favorite aspect of Savage’s work, which is becoming a literary signature: women generally don’t get saved by men here. Women either save themselves, or they save others. But in this regard, Savage is the ultimate anti-noir author. There are no helpless women. Three cheers for Savage’s powerful feminist fiction.

Last, let’s look at the side characters. There are a host of them, and a number of them are known by multiple names, so this is not a beach read. I quickly learned not to read this story after I took my sleeping pill, because if I did, I would just have to read it again the next day. In addition to our colorful older French mentor, Savage introduces a new character named Fanny that I would love to see again.

Get it digitally or get it on paper, but if you love a well-crafted psychological thriller, you have to read this book.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading