Tag Archives: Espionage

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

You don’t call it a World War unless the war affects almost everyone in the world. That is why there seems to be pockets of stories about WWII which we might not have heard about before now. One of the most fascinating secrets from the 1940’s is the subversive activities of the British. The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in charge of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Occupied Europe was sometimes referred to as the Baker Street Irregulars (based on their location which is infamously connected to Sherlock Holmes). Also colloquially known as Churchill’s Secret Army, this government organization not only used men, but also had a special Section F which trained and sent women into the field at a time when women were mainly considered as auxiliary units. 55 female agents were sent out as radio operators and couriers with 13 being killed in action, many who died in concentration camps. Their expectations included unarmed combat but they were also trained to use weapons. Once the war was over, the SOE was disbanded. Unfortunately, since these women were not enlisted soldiers, they didn’t get the recognition their male counterparts received. It wasn’t until recently that well deserved medals have been awarded and even then the women had to jump through hoops to prove they deserved this honor.

In her research of this scenario, Pam Jenoff discovered a treasure trove of drama both on and off the field to include in her historical novel, The Lost Girls of Paris. There was secret love, bravery, courageous actions, questionable decisions, rogue behaviors, personal sacrifice, and finally betrayal, all packed into a relatively brief period of time.

To portray these events, Jenoff chose to follow the lives of three women. The book begins in early 1946, shortly after the war had ended, where American Grace Healey, a young war widow, accidentally finds a suitcase left under a bench in Grand Central Station. Opening it to take a peak inside she pulls out an envelope with twelve labeled photographs each featuring a different girl. Her determined quest to uncover the whys and wherefores behind this discovery is a running theme throughout the book.

Next we meet Eleanor Trigg, the one in charge of the secret female agents who were sent to France with their radios to decipher and transmit coded messages to assist the success of the French Resistance and clear the way for the anticipated arrival of American Troops. This time frame in 1944 included the weeks leading up to D Day in Normandy where the importance of  their work superseded everything, including the safety of those in the field. Trigg, feeling responsible for the girls she recruited, kept watch over their activities and wanted answers when anything went awry.

Finally, there is Marie Roux, a single mom, whose motivation for taking on this task is questionable. While fluent in French, there were certain aspects of her character which made her a less than stellar candidate for the position, despite the extensive training she and the other women endured. Yet she still was called to duty and sent to France, expected to execute orders without question (even though following orders was not her strong suit). Through Marie we get into the nitty gritty of espionage, with undercover air flights, hidden radios, and sabotage, all while hiding in plain sight despite the ever present Germans literally living next door. Spoiler Alert: Not everything runs smoothly.

Pam Jenoff, known for the novel The Orphan’s Tale as well as other stories based on WWII and the Holocaust, has found another tale which highlights the heroic role of women during wartime. Parts of this novel were fascinating but despite the fact that it was inspired by real events, some of the details seemed too far fetched to pass the smell test. Even if true, the complexities of the situation were so simplified as to be ridiculous at times which took away from the seriousness of the situation. However, the plot quickly flowed through the eyes of the three women and the reader can’t help rooting for their eventual success despite the reality that when it comes to war there isn’t always a big bow to wrap up a happily ever after ending. The best we can hope for is a couple of colorful ribbons.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Advertisements

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

I’d never read a book by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, but his 1992 Man Booker Prize winner, The English Patient, is on my “to read” list, so I thought I’d give his newest novel, Warlight, which is on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a try.

Part one of the novel deals with the childhood in 1945 London of Nathaniel (Stitch) whose parents abandon him and his sister Rachel (Wren) when they are in their teens and place them in the hands of some somewhat unsavory characters (The Moth and his pal The Darter) who involve them in their nefarious everyday activities. Not that fourteen year old Nathaniel minds. Who wouldn’t want to skip school to drive around to various destinations with a car full of greyhounds or, better yet, steer a boat through the waterways of England to various ports to deliver these same goods – unknown quantities with questionable pedigrees – to compete in underground dog racing? He learns a lot about secrecy, especially concealing his sexual trysts with Agnes, who finds them empty houses for sale listed with her real estate brother – homes bereft of furniture where they can do the deed without being disturbed. Fun times, but living on the edge can be dangerous and the siblings start to wonder where their mother really is (they could care less about their dad) when they discover her trunk, which had been carefully packed in their presence, untouched in the attic still full of her things. She definitely is not in the stated destination of Singapore.

Which leads to Part Two, where Nathanial, fifteen years later, is on a quest to discover the truth about his mum, Rose. Rachel is out of the scene and no one else is around from those forgone times of his youth, so he’s going it alone, surreptitiously searching for evidence at the Intelligence Agency where he works. Nathaniel’s narrative provides details from his teen years as clues into the truth, showing up as he attempts to find some sort of explanation, as the faces and names from his past provide the stepping stones necessary to reconstruct his mother’s days during the war to find the answers he desperately needs in order to move forward with his life.

Reading Warlight is like walking through a murky night getting glimpses of where you are headed but still not quite sure you are going in the right direction. Some of the visualizations are fascinating, but the plot meanders making it difficult to follow, causing the reader to make guesses as to what is actually happening, not daring to ever ask why. The concept of Schwer, part of the secret language between siblings, is ever present, representing the struggles during a post war London reconstructing after the Blitz. Even the occasional ray of sunshine Ondaatje allows to peer through his words does not provide enough light to overcome the dreariness left by the war nor its effects on this family. A thoroughly depressing book which fails to be lifted out of its angst by Nathaniel’s discoveries. However, the entire tale has a haunting effect as compared to most literature which is too often read and forgotten, although it is a complicated, difficult read, not for the casual reader. Three and a half stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve

It happens! Not very often, but often enough. A plane crashes! Sometimes in your own “back yard”! I remember that midwinter’s night about nine years ago, bitterly cold and clear, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, NY, not even ten miles from my house, even closer to the Buffalo International Airport. Everyone knew someone affected, such as the cantor at the synagogue up the street, the wife of a professor at UB who was teaching a class I was taking at the Teacher Center on Asian Culture. We were discussing the Great Wall of China and I said that was on my bucket list, “what’s that,” he asked; awkwardly I realized my mistake as I explained the term, knowing it was too late for his wife to make such requests.

Pilot error! I thought about the pilots who didn’t realize how quickly those wings would ice up on a Buffalo winter’s evening or how important that they maintain control and not rely on the autopilot so as to avoid the danger of a stall. I thought of their families, their spouses and parents, their friends, and how they all suffered along with those of the other 47 on board (plus the older gentleman in the home where they crashed) on that fateful night just minutes from landing safely.

So when I picked up The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, I was reading a scenario I had already mentally examined, yet living it through the eyes of fictional character Kathryn Lyons, whose husband was accused of committing suicide at the expense of the 103 passengers and crew on board the Heathrow to Boston flight. This is a heart wrenching tale, pulling the reader into the roller coaster of emotions which result from such a tragedy. Through a flashback of thoughts we are given the details of what appears to be the perfect marriage, yet there are little hints that something was somehow a little off kilter, just mildly, but in retrospect significant. In this way Kathryn starts to piece together the truth with the support of union rep Robert Hart who helps her navigate past the disruptions of the questioning reporters, the investigators from the Safety Board, and even the FBI, as well as assist her in creating enough semblance of normalcy to provide closure through a memorial service and the upcoming Christmas holidays. Kathryn can’t completely fall apart because she has her fifteen year old daughter Mattie to care for, although her grandmother Julie is there for support, just as she was when Kathryn’s parents tragically died.

Well written, full of angst despite some tender moments, and, while not altogether unexpected, there are a few twists and turns in the story that propels us through to the end. Paying attention to the little details might provide enough clues to answer some of the questions left after reading the open ended conclusion, especially since Shreve doesn’t let the plot drag on, but keeps it going just long enough to get the job done.

I would be remiss in not examining the life of the author, Anita Shreve, who died this past August at the age of 71 from a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Shreve, who grew up in Boston but spent her summers in Maine, believed that the focal point of any story should be the family home -“a house with any kind of age has dozens of stories to tell”. The particular residence in The Pilot’s Wife was an 1890s white-clapboard house with a mansard roof located on the coast of southern Maine reminiscent of the place where the author spent her summer vacations. Her love of this childhood spot extended to the sea, a setting which becomes like an additional character in the narrative. When Shreve overheard a conversation about a plane crash, she thought of her father, who was an airplane pilot, and couldn’t help imagining how she would feel if she were the pilot’s wife. That lead to this novel as well as the 2002 screenplay she wrote for the made for television movie.

Jack kept a lot of secrets from his wife, and ironically Shreve also had her share of secrets. Her husband Osborne, a childhood sweetheart she reconnected with in later years, confessed that she was so quiet about her personal life that even he didn’t know the names of two of her former three husbands. Perhaps the need for intimacy is why the author preferred to write her stories in longhand, feeling that it brought her closer to the subject matter than the use of an electronic device.

Her last book, The Stars Are Fire, which I recently read, takes place in the same relative locale in Maine with a vintage house and the sea also playing a major role in that story’s development. It is sad that there will be no further endeavors by this particular author whose name was thrust on to the public’s radar when The Pilot’s Wife was chosen for the Oprah Book Club in 1999.

A compelling read. Four stars.

A Death In Vienna by Daniel Silva

The option for Daniel Silvia’s book series featuring Gabriel Allon has recently been picked up by MGM. These espionage novels should easily translate into an exciting visualization highlighting Silva’s fast acting plots. Unfortunately, as a novel there is just a little something missing which detracts from the whole. Yes, A Death in Vienna, the third of a collection of books involving the retired multilingual Mossad Agent and his search for the truth about the Holocaust, is a quick read on a subject which remains front and center seven plus decades after this catastrophic historical event (the book was published in 2005). However, there were so many names to distinguish plus continual movement from one locale to another, that I was confused on more than one occasion. Despite a story which spanned over four hundred pages, there seemed to be a few gaps, especially in regards to the development of the numerous characters involved in this Nazi intrigue. The book reminded me of a television series which focuses on each week’s plot with a little bit about the main players at the beginning and the end of each episode so the viewer can develop a loyalty towards the show. Unfortunately, Silva’s approach makes it difficult to relate to the various personas, especially the enigmatic protagonist Gabriel.

When an old friend is involved in a bombing in Vienna, Gabriel Allon must leave his Venice home where he works as an art restorer, and travel to Italy to discover the identity of the perpetrators behind this seemingly random event. The fact the incident occurs at the Wartime Crimes and Inquiry Office is a major clue, but the question remains: What details from Nazi Germany have been uncovered and who exactly is feeling threatened? Unfortunately, Allon is on Vienna’s “you’re not welcome here” list due to a conflict from a previous book, and he is none too gently escorted out of the country, but not before he unearths some information about a possible Nazi survivor. Allons treacherous exploration to uncover the facts in this case leads him to locales such as the Vatican, Argentina, the United States, Israel, Germany, and Czechoslovakia where distinguishing friend from foe is a matter of life or death. Then once the truth is ascertained and verified, justice must be served.

My favorite parts of the novel is the backstory involving Allon’s wife and son who were caught in a car bombing, his mother who survived life in a Nazi Concentration Camp and the Death March from Birkenau, and a partner who has his back in more ways than one. I also appreciated learning some new information about the Holocaust (or Shoah) including the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church, Austria, and even the United States who assisted “helpful” Nazis in avoiding prosecution for war crimes. The existence of an archive in Israel containing the narratives of the victims who survived the Concentration Camps as well as the story of Aktion 1005 – a group of German soldiers who did their best to destroy evidence of the mass murders committed in the name of the Final Solution, are well researched details which provide a realistic basis for this book. Historical novels such as these are important vehicles to remind readers that anti semitism still exists and nationalists are biding their time until their cause can rise again. I still hear rumors that Hitler escaped to Argentina and a Fourth Reich is just waiting to happen.

While authors such as Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum do a better job in this genre, Silva is a credible author with a strong following. Three and a half stars.

Full Throttle by Julie Ann Walker

Full Throttle by Julie Ann Walker

This was my introduction to the Black Knights, Inc Series and I found the characters interesting and their back stories intriguing. However, this particular book, Full Throttle by Julie Ann Walker, was too full of sexual misconduct with not enough emphasis on the action.

The story begins with Abby, a nineteen year old premed college student, admiring Carlos Soto, the twin brother of her academic advisor, Rosa. Their carefree banter makes her late for a meeting at the local cafe when “boom”, the place blows up, killing Rosa and the other occupants. Once we realize that Abigail Thompson is the daughter of the upcoming President of the US, it’s easy to figure out what happened, yet Ms Walker alludes to the obvious resulting guilt as if the reader is an idiot.

Eight years later, Abby has left the field of medicine and turned to Botany (the sight of blood makes her faint). At a Horticulture Convention in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Carlos, now known as Steady, has been assigned to discreetly protect the president’s daughter from harm. Abby has kept alive her love for this man ever since that fateful day when her father made her promise to maintain her distance from Rosa’s twin. In exchange, President Thompson has agreed to keep a close eye on Carlos, even offering him a position in the Black Knights, Inc or BKI, an elite super secret organization who answers only to POTUS. Enter a terrorist organization, a kidnapping, a rescue mission, and some unforeseen mishaps, before the “truth” emerges and the story concludes, with a promise of more adventure. There appears to be a thread that winds throughout the various books in this series, loosely tying the BKI adventures together towards one elusive adversary.

Amidst the camaraderie among the “guys” is quite a bit of sexual prowess displayed by almost all the main characters. A little less bragging and a little more action is needed to make the plot more cohesive. For example, while running through the jungle, trying to keep ahead of the murderous terrorists, the tension between the protagonists shouldn’t be sexual. Also, the random thoughts shouldn’t always consist of hard-ons or hulking body parts. Enough already. We get it – you find each other attractive, but keep it in your pants so you can get the hell out of Malaysia and into Thailand before it is too late.

Not that the readers of this series don’t like a bit of graphic sex, they obviously do or they wouldn’t be reading book #7, but the author needs be sure it fits in with the story and makes sense. And remember, too much is worse than not enough. This is supposed to be an action novel, so more action and less dithering. In addition, since the plot is relatively simple and straight forward, the climax should have arrived much earlier. I felt the storyline dragged a little in the middle. There was too much repetition in the characters’ thoughts and not enough movement.

However, there were some positive aspects which I enjoyed. My favorite part was when Abby and Steady were treated to the hospitality of an Orang Asli village. These aborigines were delightful and added a touch of humanity to the story. Of course, it’s a little far fetched to call someone a doctor who did not complete their medical school requirements, but the sentiment was heartfelt when a family was potentially cured of a debilitating disease. In addition, the final battle scene was immensely satisfying, with just enough tension to make the whole book worthwhile.

My curiosity is peaked enough to wish to compare this novel to other books in the series.

I give Full Throttle three stars and I would like to thank Sourcebooks for allowing me to read a preview in exchange for an honest review.