Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman

Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara AckermanThe Codebreaker's Secret by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Mira Books on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A brilliant female codebreaker. An “unbreakable” Japanese naval code. A pilot on a top-secret mission that could change the course of WWII. The Codebreaker's Secret is a dazzling story of love and intrigue set during America’s darkest hour.
1943. As war in the Pacific rages on, Isabel Cooper and her codebreaker colleagues huddle in “the dungeon” at Station HYPO in Pearl Harbor, deciphering secrets plucked from the airwaves in a race to bring down the enemy. Isabel has only one wish: to avenge her brother’s death. But she soon finds life has other plans when she meets his best friend, a hotshot pilot with secrets of his own.
1965. Fledgling journalist Lu Freitas comes home to Hawai'i to cover the grand opening of the glamorous Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Rockefeller's newest and grandest project. When a high-profile guest goes missing, Lu forms an unlikely alliance with an intimidating veteran photographer to unravel the mystery. The two make a shocking discovery that stirs up memories and uncovers an explosive secret from the war days. A secret that only a codebreaker can crack.

My Review:

Like the author’s previous work, The Codebreaker’s Secret is primarily set in the author’s home state, Hawai’i, during World War II. And like her other books, this one mixes a touch of romance with a story about both brave and nefarious wartime deeds on a homefront that experienced the war just a bit differently – and considerably closer to home – than did the mainland.

This one is also a bit different because it has a bit of a timeslip element to it. Not exactly, and not all that far apart in time, but just far enough for that wartime experience to seem both far away in the rearview mirror but still very much relevant – and impactful – on the characters’ present.

We begin in 1942, in Washington DC, with codebreaker Isabel Cooper desperate to get to Hawai’i. Her brother was an Army pilot, who was stationed at Pearl on that “Date which will live in infamy” when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Walt Cooper went down with his plane. He was his sisters’ big brother, protector and best friend, and her world seems empty without him to share it with.

She’s determined to go to Hawai’i, to meet Walt’s friends, to see what he saw and walk where he walked, so that she can feel closer to him – even though he’s gone. When she manages to break the code of Japan’s complex naval cipher machine, she’s on her way to Pearl, where her adventure truly begins.

In 1965, Luana (call her Lu, please!) Freitas is on her way back to her home in Hawai’i, but not for a visit to her family. She’s a features writer for Sunset Magazine and she’s come to cover the opening of Laurance Rockefeller’s brand new hotel, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on the Kohala Coast of the island of Hawai’i. Sunset was, and is, a lifestyle magazine. Lu was supposed to write about the luxurious splendor of the hotel and the parties attended by the rich and famous.

But the first person Lu meets on the way to the hotel is the famous singer Joni Diaz. The second person is the legendary Life Magazine photographer Matteo Russi. When Joni goes missing, the writer and the photographer team up to learn what, and especially who, happened to the singer for her body to wash up on the hotel’s otherwise pristine beach.

What they discover is that the secrets and the enemies that have been hidden since the war still have the power to destroy. But that the wounds left behind by that war can still be healed, and that what was once lost can be found again. Even in the last place that anyone ever expected to look.

Escape Rating A: This is my third book by Sara Ackerman (after Red Sky Over Hawaii and Radar Girls) and so far it’s my favorite. (I’m saying “so far” because there are two earlier books of hers that I have not yet read – and because of course I expect more!)

A huge part of what made this work so well for me was the way that the “timeslip” worked. First we follow Isabel in 1943, then we are with Lu in 1965. There’s no need for any supernatural woo-woo or lost diaries to make the two stories link up, because Matteo Russi becomes a central figure in both time periods.

Which is entirely plausible and even realistic. Think about that whole meme on the interwebs about the foreshortening of time, that in our heads we think of 1980 as being twenty years ago when it’s really 40 years ago and what a mindbend that is.

But in 1965 the men and women who served in World War II (and survived) were mostly in their 40s, and often their early 40s at that. Very much in their primes, with most of their lives still ahead of them. A lot of TV heroes in the mid-1960s had served in either WW2 or Korea, which led to them being cops or private investigators or something else dangerous and sexy. Not that I was thinking that last bit when I watched those shows, I was only eight in 1965.

That Matteo is a young aviator in 1942 and an experienced photographer in 1965 at the top of his game grounds the story. As does Lu’s position of being a young female journalist who feels compelled to beat the men who are certain that she can’t cut it because she’s a woman.

There have been a lot of recent books about women serving as code breakers and other top secret positions during the war – a trend that this author has herself contributed to. This is also something that would have once been believed to be too sensational to be true, but with the war years now mostly declassified, those truths have come out and aren’t they glorious?

One of the things that made this work so much better for me than Red Sky Over Hawaii is that the villain of The Codebreaker’s Secret is entirely realistic and not over-the-top at all. There were plenty of Nazis who were brought to the U.S. after the war, with their records sanitized by the U.S. government, in order to advance the U.S. missile program and give us a leg up against the Soviets in the Cold War arms and space race.

That there were spies and agents working for the Nazi cause during the war is hardly a surprise. It’s been a topic for conspiracy theories and espionage thrillers for decades. And it allows for a disgustingly slimy, smarmy villain who is all-too-realistic and not over-the-top at all.

I’m always fascinated with the history in historical fiction, but what really makes this story sing – and even occasionally dance – are the personalities of its three protagonists, Isabel Cooper, Luana Freitas, and especially Matteo Russi who links the two – although not in the way that you’re probably thinking. And the story is infinitely better for that link not following the usual patterns.

Although their stories take place two decades apart, both Lu and Isabel are in the same place in each of theirs. Not just geographically, but also personally and professionally. They are both in their early 20s, both experiencing their first taste of freedom and responsibility, both driven to excel in professions that are dominated by men. And both willing to put themselves on the line for the truth.

At the same time, Matteo, who is the same human being in both time periods, is radically different. Time, experience and war have changed him from the brash young man who was Isabel’s friend but never her lover, to the womanizing bastard who is at the top of his profession but heading towards the bottom of his life.

He has no idea that mentoring Lu will heal so much of what has ailed him since the war. If only he can open himself up enough to try.

As I said earlier, I loved The Codebreaker’s Secret. I can’t wait for the author’s next book, because I’m highly anticipating more historical fictional goodness set in a captivating place and manages to provide a bit of a fresh perspective on a time period that has been endlessly explored – but not from this marvelous angle. Hopefully this time next year!

Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr

Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa BarrWoman on Fire by Lisa Barr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, mystery, thriller, World War II
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Paperbacks on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the author of the award-winning Fugitive Colors and The Unbreakables, a gripping tale of a young, ambitious journalist embroiled in an international art art scandal centered around a Nazi-looted masterpiece--forcing the ultimate showdown between passion and possession, lovers and liars, history and truth. NOW A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! Actress Sharon Stone set to produce and star in the film adaptation of WOMAN ON FIRE.
After talking her way into a job with Dan Mansfield, the leading investigative reporter in Chicago, rising young journalist Jules Roth is given an unusual--and very secret--assignment. Dan needs her to locate a painting stolen by the Nazis more than 75 years earlier: legendary Expressionist artist Ernst Engel's most famous work, Woman on Fire. World-renowned shoe designer Ellis Baum wants this portrait of a beautiful, mysterious woman for deeply personal reasons, and has enlisted Dan's help to find it. But Jules doesn't have much time; the famous designer is dying.
Meanwhile, in Europe, provocative and powerful Margaux de Laurent also searches for the painting. Heir to her art collector family's millions, Margaux is a cunning gallerist who gets everything she wants. The only thing standing in her way is Jules. Yet the passionate and determined Jules has unexpected resources of her own, including Adam Baum, Ellis's grandson. A recovering addict and brilliant artist in his own right, Adam was once in Margaux's clutches. He knows how ruthless she is, and he'll do anything to help Jules locate the painting before Margaux gets to it first.
A thrilling tale of secrets, love, and sacrifice that illuminates the destructive cruelty of war and greed and the triumphant power of beauty and love, Woman on Fire tells the story of a remarkable woman and an exquisite work of art that burns bright, moving through hands, hearts, and history.

My Review:

Every single woman in this story is surrounded by flame, from Anika Baum, the model for the iconic painting, to Jules Roth, the woman charged with tracking her down and bringing her home. While along the way, Margaux de Laurent is determined to possess the painting at any and all costs, no matter how many people she has to burn along the way.

Including herself.

If the women are fire, the men are ash – the ash left in the wake of those flames. Ellis Baum, Anika’s son, still haunted by his mother’s death; Dan Mansfield, determined to do his old friend one final favor, and Adam Chase, Ellis’ grandson, an artist burned in the web between Margaux and Jules.

Like all the best heist and caper stories – because that’s a big part of what Woman on Fire is, after all – this story starts at what seems like the end. An end where it looks like everything has gone totally pear-shaped.

And then we rewind back to the beginning. The beginning of the caper, at least. It takes a bit of recap to learn how the players of this high stakes game ended up in the positions they were in before we are able to understand why we need to go all the way back to Nazi Germany and the creation of this avant-garde masterpiece, Woman on Fire.

Ellis Baum, the premier shoe designer in the world, is dying. Before he dies, he wants to see his mother one last time. A task that should be impossible and might still be. But Baum has nothing left to lose. His last sight of his mother was of the Nazis humiliating her and then taking her away. Her crimes were falling in love with a Jewish man and bearing his child and serving as a model for the avant-garde painter Ernst Engel. Both crimes were punishable by death.

Somehow, among all the art the Nazis looted, the painting that she posed for, Woman on Fire, survived the decades. Ellis asks his friend, newspaper editor and investigative reporter Dan Mansfield, to help him get it back.

Margaux de Laurent has an equally personal desire to possess the painting. It was one of her beloved grandfather’s favorite paintings. Gallery owner Charles de Laurent owned the painting briefly in the early years of the war, before the Nazis confiscated it from him. Margaux wants it back in his memory, with the hope of finding enough other looted art to save her family’s art gallery from bankruptcy.

Margaux and Ellis may have equally personal motives for acquiring the painting, but Margaux is considerably more ruthless and considerably less ethical. While both bring all the resources that they and their associates can muster to the task of bringing the painting out of the shadows, Margaux doesn’t care who she has to ruin or kill to get what she believes is rightfully hers.

She’s done it before. It’s easy to stay one step ahead of people who believe they are one step ahead of you. If you’re willing to kill every single one of them to get your way.

Escape Rating A: This is a story that started twisting me up from the very first page. I wanted so badly for them to succeed, even with just a few pages of getting into the action. And it was such a horrible let-down of a cliffie when it almost instantly looked like they failed. I knew that couldn’t be the end, but I was pretty desperate to figure out how they got there and how they got out.

Not that all of them do – but more than enough to make this a VERY satisfying read with just the right touch of bittersweet melancholy and righteous resolution.

I also have to admit that although the painting and the artist are not historical figures, I was so riveted and involved in the story that I had to look them up to be certain. It’s that good and it felt that real.

Going into this, I was expecting the early history about the Nazis systematic looting of the great art museums and private collections of Europe, but that initial theft – and theft – and re-theft was horrible and sad but not exactly unknown. What kept me turning pages were the twin searches for the painting, the painstaking research to find its trail from Ernst Engel’s studio through the de Laurent Gallery to its final resting place – and the manipulation and espionage of both parties to find the painting first and freeze out the other side. Each thinks they’re cheating the other and both are determined to win. Each thinks they know the truth about the other, but neither truly does.

And that race to a finish that they each see completely differently is what keeps the reader – or at least kept this reader – frantically turning pages to the very satisfying end.

Review: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver

Review: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley WeaverA Peculiar Combination (Electra McDonnell, #1) by Ashley Weaver
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II, mystery
Series: Electra McDonnell #1
Pages: 296
Published by Minotaur Books on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first in the Electra McDonnell series from Edgar-nominated author Ashley Weaver, set in England during World War II, A Peculiar Combination is a delightful mystery filled with spies, murder, romance, and the author's signature wit.
Electra McDonnell has always known that the way she and her family earn their living is slightly outside of the law. Breaking into the homes of the rich and picking the locks on their safes may not be condoned by British law enforcement, but World War II is in full swing, Ellie's cousins Colm and Toby are off fighting against Hitler, and Uncle Mick's more honorable business as a locksmith can't pay the bills any more.
So when Uncle Mick receives a tip about a safe full of jewels in the empty house of a wealthy family, he and Ellie can't resist. All goes as planned--until the pair are caught redhanded. Ellie expects them to be taken straight to prison, but instead they are delivered to a large townhouse, where government official Major Ramsey is waiting with an offer: either Ellie agrees to help him break into a safe and retrieve blueprints that will be critical to the British war effort, before they can be delivered to a German spy, or he turns her over to the police.
Ellie doesn't care for the Major's imperious manner, but she has no choice, and besides, she's eager to do her bit for king and country. She may be a thief, but she's no coward. When she and the Major break into the house in question, they find instead the purported German spy dead on the floor, the safe already open and empty. Soon, Ellie and Major Ramsey are forced to put aside their differences to unmask the double-agent, as they try to stop allied plans falling into German hands.

My Review:

I just got the pun in the title. Electra McDonnell is a safecracker – among all sorts of other thievery. In this WW2 era mystery thriller, Ellie is recruited, just short of press-ganged, by the agency that will be better known as MI6, in order to do what she does. That is, the Secret Intelligence Service requires her to serve her country by cracking a safe containing classified documents that a traitor plans to turn over to the Nazis.

Yes, they could just barge in, blow the safe, and arrest everyone involved, but that’s not going to put misinformation into enemy hands. Cracking the safe, substituting false documents for the real ones, does have that potential. IF they can open the safe without the traitors being the wiser.

That’s where Electra McDonnell and her Uncle Mick, small-time thieves and safecrackers trying to supplement their honest income as locksmiths, come into the picture. They get set up by MI6 and get nabbed by the police, but instead of going to jail, they get an offer they really can’t refuse.

If they do the job, they’ll be placed on the government payroll. If they refuse, they’ll get placed in one of His Majesty’s Prisons instead. All Electra has to do is crack a safe while her Uncle is held as “collateral”.

Sneaking in goes off without a hitch, except for a couple of small problems that are definitely going to turn out to be big ones. When Electra arrives to open the safe – it’s standing wide open and clearly, obviously, unfortunately – quite, quite empty. While the man that MI6 believed was the traitor is lying on the floor – quite, quite dead.

Electra and her uncle could get out at this point. They’ve done the job they were coerced into doing, they’re not obligated for anything more. But knowing that the “Service” will be watching them makes their income supplementing housebreaking even dicier than normal. And they both want to do their bit for king and country – if not exactly in the usual fashion.

Not to mention, Electra just can’t let it go. Eventually the documents will be found, and Electra’s services as a safecracker might still be needed. The ability to keep cool in danger and under pressure that makes her a good housebreaker and safecracker is also excellent training for a covert operative.

If only the handsome Major with the stick up his ass who is in charge of the operation can manage to get his head unwedged from the same location long enough to see just how much of an asset Electra can be.

Escape Rating A-: World War II, the war years, the years immediately before it and its aftermath, provide plenty of fodder for absolutely oodles of stories. The war years are particularly fruitful for stories with female protagonists – the war created thousands of opportunities for women to have a great deal of independent agency in the absence of so many men at the front. There have also been several books that feature civilians getting roped into the secret services, and A Peculiar Combination reminded me more than a bit of several of them, including The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees and Death in Focus by Anne Perry. So if you liked one of those you’ll probably like this too, and vice versa.

But Ellie McDonnell is a bit different from the usual run of such heroines because she begins the story not exactly operating on the side of the angels. She’s a thief. In fact, her entire family, her uncle and her two cousins, are all housebreakers although only Ellie and her uncle are safecrackers. Breaking and entering is the family business and it’s a business that Ellie seems to have few, if any, moral qualms about.

They’re very careful housebreakers, after all. They only steal from people who can clearly afford it, and they only break in when they are certain no one is at home – or is going to be at home for some time. It’s also not in any way, shape or form remotely glamorous. It’s a living. Not exactly a respectable living, but a living. It’s a job, not an adventure. Ellie and her uncle may get a thrill out of it, but it isn’t about the thrill. It’s about a roof over their heads and food on the table and making sure there’s enough money coming into the household when legitimate jobs are scarce.

Not that both Ellie and Mick don’t get caught up in the thrill of helping Major Ramsey figure out who the traitor is, and the race against time to switch the documents before they’re handed off to the Nazis.

There’s an element of out of the frying pan into the fire as Ellie and Ramsay move one or two steps forward in their hunt for the enemy agent only to discover themselves back where they’ve started because they’ve swallowed a red herring instead of an actual clue. Or because the actual clue led, as it does at the opening, to an actual dead body. The reader finds themselves misdirected every bit as much as they are. The person who is acting against them seems to be at least one step ahead of them throughout the entire chase – and for excellent reasons which the story does an equally excellent job of concealing.

Returning to Major Ramsey, the man with both a stick and his head up his fundament, there is actually a second “peculiar combination” in this story. A romantic triangle – if that’s what it eventually turns out to be as the series progresses. Ramsay may be romantically interested in Ellie – there certainly are hints in that direction. Ellie is at least attracted to Ramsay, as he’s more than handsome enough, but she’s wary of his imperious manner and his upper-crust background. Meanwhile, there’s another man vying for Ellie’s heart, a childhood friend who is, as the saying goes, no better than he ought to be. But then, neither is Ellie. I hope that this conundrum is eventually resolved with as deft a hand as the spy case is wrapped up in this first book in the series, because as much as I’ve loved the adventure and the misdirection so far, I would be even happier with this story without the potentially messy romantic entanglements. YMMV

But I really did love the spy games, and I like Ellie as an unconventional protagonist quite a lot, so I’m looking forward to the second book in this series, The Key to Deceit, coming out in May, 2022.

Review: M. King’s Bodyguard by Niall Leonard

Review: M. King’s Bodyguard by Niall LeonardM, King's Bodyguard by Niall Leonard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 272
Published by Pantheon on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Based on a true story, M, King’s Bodyguard is a gripping, atmospheric thriller about anarchy and assassination in Edwardian London, and one detective’s mission to preserve the life of his king and prevent a bloody war in Europe.
From humble beginnings in Ireland, William Melville has risen through hard work, intelligence, and occasional brute force to become head of Britain’s Special Branch, personal bodyguard to Queen Victoria and her family, and the scourge of anarchists at home and abroad. But when in January 1901 the aged Queen dies and the crowned heads of Europe converge on London for her funeral, Melville learns of a conspiracy, led by a mysterious nihilist known only as Akushku, to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany at the ceremony.
Racing to prevent the atrocity, Melville and his German counterpart Gustav Steinhauer find themselves tangled in a web of adultery, betrayal, and violence. As the funeral looms ever closer, Melville realizes that Akushku is the most resourceful and vicious foe he has yet encountered—but is the real threat from Melville’s enemies, or his allies?

My Review:

It’s fascinating to learn that this is based on a true story. Possibly a bit loosely. But the bare bones of these events really happened. It’s even more fascinating to learn that another story, a much more famous one, owes its origins to this same set of events. Sorta/kinda.

Let me explain.

When this story opens, we’re in London, in 1901, experiencing that time and place through the mind of William Mellville, the Head of Special Branch. (The name of that agency may sound familiar. Thomas Pitt, one of the protagonists of Anne Perry’s historical mystery series, becomes Head of Special Branch in the 21st book in the series, The Whitechapel Conspiracy. It’s a title he still holds in 1910 when the series featuring his son Daniel opens with Twenty-One Days. Honestly, I thought Perry made the agency and the title up for her series. Now I’m wondering if Pitt was based a bit on Melville.)

Thomas Pitt is a fictional character, but William Melville is not. When we meet him and get inside his head at the beginning of this book, an era is about to end, and Melville is going to be one of the close witnesses to what happens next. Especially if it explodes.

William Melville

That’s because the events in this story are based on historical fact. The outlines of this case actually happened. William Melville, the title character of this book, was, in addition to his position as Head of Special Branch, one of the high-level bodyguards tasked with keeping the royal family safe, and it’s in that combined set of duties that he becomes the focal point of this story.

It is 1901, and Queen Victoria’s death is imminent. She has ruled for 63 years, and is the only queen that most Britons have ever known. (Only Elizabeth II has ruled longer.) Melville’s duty is to assist in the preparations for her State Funeral, and to deal with any security issues which it will engender.

There will be plenty. Queen Victoria was related to most of the crowned heads of Europe, and many are planning to attend her funeral. In an era when terrorism was on the rise and it seemed like anarchists, nihilists and revolutionaries were springing up at every turn, it is Special Branch’s remit to keep an eye on every organization that might tip over into violence and stop it before it happens.

Queen Victoria’s funeral will present would-be assassins with a veritable cornucopia of crowned heads to cut down or chop off, all marching in a stately procession along a predetermined route, with the newly crowned King Edward VII and his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia in a prominent – and easily targeted – position.

When Melville learns of a plot to assassinate the Kaiser during the procession, he spends every waking moment – of which there are entirely too many – tracking down the would-be assassin. He is aided by the Kaiser’s own bodyguard, Gustav Steinhauer.

In a Europe where the old guard is dying, with revolution on every horizon, the storm clouds of war are gathering. Melville’s motives and loyalties are clear – even if his methods are sometimes questionable.

Gustav Steinhauer

Steinhauer appears to be a comrade in arms, working at Melville’s side to prevent the potential assassination of one or both of their charges. The plot is real enough, but the impulse behind it is murky, at least partially obscured by a man that Melville wants to trust, whether he should or not.

Escape Rating A: I misread the title of this book, and as a consequence got something different – and much better – than I was expecting. I read the comma in the title as a period, so I thought it was M. King’s Bodyguard, as in someone was guarding someone named M. King, or, from the blurb, that it was intended as “M. King” a nom-de-plume for the king himself.

Instead, this is a story about the person who might have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s famous “M”, the head of the Secret Service for which James Bond is an agent. William Melville, after all, rose from Head of Special Branch to become the first head of the organization that eventually became MI5, the British Security Service.

The case in this book really happened, but probably not quite the way it does in the story. The very beginning of the action is based on Gustav Steinhauer’s own autobiography. How accurate he was at telling his own story, and how much he obscured is anyone’s guess. After all, he was Melville’s counterpart, not just the Kaiser’s bodyguard but also the head of the Prussian – later German – Intelligence Service.

But the heart of this story – and this case – is Melville’s desperate race to discover the would-be assassin and prevent the assassination. It’s a race against the clock that draws the reader into Melville’s world and his desperation to stop the terrorist before he starts a war in the streets of London that will reverberate around the world.

To some extent, Melville is like the boy sticking his fingers in the dike. We know the war is going to happen no matter what he does. But it doesn’t have to begin in a bloodbath at Queen Victoria’s State Funeral, and it doesn’t have to begin on his watch on his own turf.

Queen Victoria’s Funeral Procession

His opponent is intelligent and well-trained, and his right hand is none too certain what his left-hand man, Steinhauer, knows and isn’t sharing. There were times in the story where I wondered if Steinhauer himself was the assassin and was leading Melville on even more of a wild goose chase than he actually was.

This was a terrific thrill-ride of a story, all the better for being based in the real. Melville is enough of an outsider to be a dispassionate observer of the people around him, including royalty, while still being a staunch defender of the status quo for reasons that make sense to both the character and the reader. Steinhauer is as much a puzzle to the reader as he is to Melville, serving as acolyte, foil and antagonist by turns, always hiding his real self in the shadows.

The portrait of an era as it ends, that period when the old order was fading, the world was changing, the status quo was falling to pieces and the war we know was inevitable still seemed preventable is heartbreaking, frustrating and compelling by turns. I couldn’t put this one down. If you enjoy historical mysteries, thrillers and/or espionage tales, you won’t be able to either.

Review: Slough House by Mick Herron

Review: Slough House by Mick HerronSlough House (Slough House, #7) by Mick Herron
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, mystery, thriller
Series: Slough House #7
Pages: 312
Published by Soho Crime on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Brexit is in full swing. And due to mysterious accidents, the Slough Houses ranks continue to thin. The seventh entry to the Slough House series is as thrilling and bleeding-edge relevant as ever.
A year after a calamitous blunder by the Russian secret service left a British citizen dead from novichok poisoning, Diana Taverner is on the warpath. What seems a gutless response from the government has pushed the Service's First Desk into mounting her own counter-offensive—but she's had to make a deal with the devil first. And given that the devil in question is arch-manipulator Peter Judd, she could be about to lose control of everything she's fought for.
Meanwhile, still reeling from recent losses, the slow horses are worried they've been pushed further into the cold. Slough House has been wiped from Service records, and fatal accidents keep happening. No wonder Jackson Lamb's crew are feeling paranoid. But have they actually been targeted? With a new populist movement taking a grip on London's streets, and the old order ensuring that everything's for sale to the highest bidder, the world's an uncomfortable place for those deemed surplus to requirements. The wise move would be to find a safe place and wait for the troubles to pass.
But the slow horses aren't famed for making wise decisions. And with enemies on all sides, not even Jackson Lamb can keep his crew from harm.

My Review:

In case you’re wondering, “Slough” should be pronounced the same as “Slow” – even though it technically isn’t. Because the “slow horses” that used to race in the spy games at Regent’s Park – home of Britain’s security services – now plod along at Slough House, still on the payroll but just marking time. Until they retire, or die. Or just fade away.

As this story opens, they’re dying. Alone. One by one. In accidents. Or in circumstances made to look like accidents.

But, as an old master of the spy game, Ian Fleming, once said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” Jackson Lamb, while he’s not nearly as suave as Fleming or the character he created, is definitely a master of the spy game and well aware of this dictum – even if he doesn’t always show it. Or show much of anything except contempt for the entire human race – himself included.

He’s also the manager, or the general factotum, or the head inmate, or all of the above, of Slough House. He knows, even if neither the reader nor the ranks of his slow horses do, that some enemy is taking out his agents.

He just needs to figure out who the enemy is who is authorizing these actions – and make them stop. Even if the enemy is someone who is supposed to be on the same side. Especially if that person is supposed to be on the same side, because that makes it treason.

Escape Rating A-: Slough House is an ironically slow-building thriller – but that situation is also utterly fitting for the title and especially for the characters and set up.

A set up which at first seems like a combination of the TV series New Tricks and the movie RED, but upon reading doesn’t quite fit into the mold of either, although there are elements of both.

The slow horses of Slough House aren’t so much retired as they are exiled. Slough House is kind of a “last chance saloon” for agents who have screwed up badly but who are too young to retire and perhaps know too much to be let go of, but are safe enough to keep corralled together and just might, occasionally uncover something real out of the busywork they usually end up doing. After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And as far as Regent’s Park is concerned, the slow horses are consigned to the same scrap heap as those relics would be.

From the perspective of the racers at Regent’s Park, the situation is designed to keep those slow horses docile and dreaming of a potential return to Regent’s Park and “real” spywork – a return that will never happen.

Jackson Lamb, on the other hand, is far from docile. Or, frankly, even domesticated. Instead, he reads like a variation of Daniel Hawthorne from The Word is Murder, only even more egotistical and enigmatic and considerably less savory or salubrious. It’s pretty clear that he’s been assigned to run Slough House not because he’s not good at the spy game but because he’s really, really bad at making nice or playing office politics.

I suspect that there is a lot more about Jackson Lamb, the denizens of Slough House, the relationship between Slough House and Regent’s Park and the entire setup in the previous books in the series. But I haven’t read them and didn’t feel the lack. I mean, I’m intensely curious about the whole thing but didn’t feel like I was missing anything I needed in order to get firmly stuck into this story.

As much as the setup intrigued me, and as ill assorted as Lamb and his band of misfits are, I picked this up because I was very interested in just how the whole concept of a 21st century spy thriller would even work without the 20th century staple of Cold War maneuvering to underpin the whole structure.

The answer turned out to be really, really well, but not in a direction that I was expecting – which made it even better.

Because this turned out to be a kind of “who watches the watchers” story that plays into 21st century realities when too many of the watchers are much too busy watching the people on their own side to pay attention to operatives and operations preying on them from without.

It’s also a story about just how greasy the skids are at the top of the slippery slope of corruption, and how easy it is for even people with the most honorable of intentions to find themselves halfway down that slide before they are even aware of the incline. Something that is clearly going to be the fodder for future books in the series.

Not that there weren’t plenty of “bad actors” (for plenty of definitions of “bad” and “actors” and absolutely for “bad actors”) in this book, but Bad Actors is also the title of the next book in the series. And I’m more than curious enough to see what happens to the “slow horses” next!

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison EpsteinA Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 384
Published by Doubleday Books on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant aspiring playwright, is pulled into the duplicitous world of international espionage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. A many-layered historical thriller combining state secrets, intrigue, and romance.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe's last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, who has come with an unorthodox career opportunity. Her Majesty's spies are in need of new recruits, and Kit's flexible moral compass has drawn their attention. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to act as a servant in her household and keep his ear to the ground for a Catholic plot to put Mary on the throne.
While observing Mary, Kit learns more than he bargained for. The ripple effects of his service to the Crown are far-reaching and leave Kit a changed man. But there are benefits as well. The salary he earns through his spywork allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years, he becomes the toast of London's raucous theatre scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason, he realizes everything he's worked so hard to attain--including the trust of the man he loves--could vanish before his very eyes.
Pairing modern language with period detail, Allison Epstein brings Elizabeth's privy council, Marlowe's lovable theatre troupe, and the squalor of sixteenth-century London to vivid, teeming life as Kit wends his way behind the scenes of some of Tudor history's most memorable moments. At the center of the action is Kit himself--an irrepressible, irreverent force of nature. Thrillingly written, full of poetry and danger, A Tip for the Hangman brings an unforgettable protagonist to new life, and makes a centuries-old story feel utterly contemporary.

My Review:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” Whoops. Wrong book. Right concept, but very much the wrong book. Much too early.

Elizabethan England only seems like a Golden Age because we’re looking back at it. Because history is written by the victors, and in this case the victor was Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana herself.

Anonymous 16th century portrait, believed to be Christopher Marlowe

What history glosses over are the dirty deeds done, whether or not they are dirt cheap, by unscrupulous men in dark places who pretend they are working for the good of their country – even if they are just out for the main chance.

Christopher Marlowe, often referred to as Kit, was a comet blazing across the English stage just as William Shakespeare was getting his start. It’s even possible, although unlikely, that Marlowe actually was Shakespeare. He’s got the credentials for it and the timing is possible.

On the condition that Marlowe faked his own rather suspicious death in a barroom brawl. We’ll probably never know.

But this book, this story wrapped around not one but several tips for any number of hangmen, leads the reader – and Kit Marlowe – to that suspicious barroom brawl by a road that is surprising, circuitous and shrouded in secrets. The kind of secrets that brought one queen to her end and saved another’s kingdom.

Escape Rating A+: A Tip for the Hangman is the best kind of historical fiction, the kind where the reader feels the dirt under their fingernails, the grit under their own feet – and the smells in their own nostrils.

It’s also the kind that immerses the reader in the era it portrays. We’re right there with Marlowe, a poor scholarship student at Cambridge, as he becomes Doctor Faustus to his own personal Mephistopheles a decade before he wrote his most enduring play.

Depiction of Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I, Queen of England.

It’s hard to get past that image, even though we only see it in retrospect, as the Queen’s Spymaster and Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, recruits the young, impoverished and most importantly clever Marlowe into his network of agents and informants with one aim in mind.

To bring down Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

A recruitment which ultimately becomes Mary’s end. But eventually also Marlowe’s as well.

Marlowe spends the entire book dancing on the edge of a knife, trying to forget that he’ll be cut no matter which way he falls and ignoring the forces around him, along with his own increasing world-weariness, that guarantee he will fall sooner or later.

There’s something about this period, the Tudor and Stuart era of English history, that has always captivated me. This book does a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the cut and thrust not of politics so much as the skullduggery that lies underneath it.

As I was reading A Tip for the Hangman, my mind dragged up two series that I loved that feature the same period and have many characters that overlap this book. Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age puts an urban fantasy/portal twist on this period and includes both Marlowe and Shakespeare as featured characters, while Dorothy Dunnett’s marvelous Lymond series focuses on a character who spies on many of the same people that Marlowe does here, most notably Mary, Queen of Scots. Lymond’s frequent second, third and fourth thoughts about the life he has fallen into echo Marlowe in the depths of regret and even despair.

A Tip for the Hangman is a fantastic book for those looking for their history and historical fiction to be “warts and all” – to immerse the reader in life as it was lived and not just the deeds and doings of the high and mighty. Because when it comes to conveying a more nuanced version of life as a hard-scrabbling playwright living hand to mouth and fearing that the hand would get cut off this feels like an absorbing story of fiction being the lie that tells, if not THE absolute truth then absolutely a certain kind of truth.

I would also say, “Read it and weep” for Kit Marlowe and what he might have been if he’d lived. Instead, I’ll just say “READ IT!”

Review: Raider by M.L. Buchman

Review: Raider by M.L. BuchmanRaider Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #5
Pages: 360
Published by Buchman Bookworks on January 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.
The US Army’s brand-new S-97 Raider reconnaissance helicopter goes down during final acceptance testing — hard. Cause: a failure, or the latest in a series of cyberattacks by Turkey.
Miranda Chase, an autistic air-crash genius, and her team of NTSB investigators tackle the challenge. They must find the flaw, save the Vice President, and stop the US being forced into the next war in the Middle East. And they have to do it now!

My Review:

There are several ways to approach Raider and the entire Miranda Chase series – and they all work because the series is just so damn good.

Miranda Chase is a savant when it comes to figuring out the cause of aircraft crashes, no matter how often the only way to solve the puzzle is to start from the old Sherlock Holmes aphorism that goes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

So many of Miranda and her team’s solutions veer into the airspace of very improbable indeed, right up to the point where they prove, yet again, that improbability happens – and that they are the best team in the world at figuring it out.

And speaking of the team, another way of approaching this series is as a brilliant exercise in “competence porn”. Miranda and her team are the very best at what they do. Not just Miranda with her bone-deep desire to prevent the kind of crash that killed her parents, combined with the extreme focus on the task accompanied by a complete lack of ability to deal with social cues that is part of her autism spectrum disorder.

But it’s also about the team that she has gathered around her, because they are ALL the best at what they do, even if, as happens to both long-term team member and human factors specialist Mike and newcomer and helicopter specialist Andi, more than occasionally individual team members wonder what it is that they, personally are bringing to Miranda’s table.

Even the best of the best get slapped with impostor syndrome now and again.

Last but not least, for those who experience an occasional sense of nostalgia for the big, meaty, complicated spy games and government con games of the late Tom Clancy , the Miranda Chase series will definitely remind such readers of the internecine government warfare that was at the heart of so many of Clancy’s best – without the heft. (His later books did get kind of doorstoppy.)

Because this adventure, like ALL of Miranda’s adventures, combines plane crashes, government skullduggery, political one-upmanship (also one-upwomanship), brinkmanship that almost but not quite flies over that brink, with spy games and digital warfare on each and every side.

And it’s a thrill-a-minute ride every step of the way.

Escape Rating A: The Miranda Chase series just keeps getting better and better. I’m not the only reviewer saying it, but it bears repeating, so I’m repeating it. The series began in late 2019 with Drone and it has been just the perfect antidote to everything that went wrong in 2020. It features fascinating people solving convoluted problems with the occasional help and just as frequent stonewalling by a government that seems torn between getting shit done and turning on itself.

But competence and capability always triumph in this series, no matter what the odds or who is stacking them up.

This entry in the series ups the ante both in the solution to the series of crashes they are investigating and in their hair-raising escape from the results of that investigation – when it turns out they desperately need to escape a possibly hostile country with the Vice-President, the top-secret parts of Air Force Two, 60-something nuclear warheads and themselves intact while someone back in DC hacks that same country’s cyber warfare capability. It’s all in a day’s work – actually several almost totally sleepless days’ work – for Miranda and Co.

The other fascinating part of this entry in the series, in addition to the usual air crashes and spy games, is that the team has finally become a five-man band with the introduction of Captain Andrea (Andi) Wu, a helicopter pilot and not-fully-trained NTSB agent who was honorably discharged from the Night Stalkers with PTSD after her copilot took a grenade and saved her life and her helicopter. A helicopter that has just gone down in a mysterious crash.

Andi needs a purpose. Miranda and her team need an expert in all things helicopter, as well as someone who can speak fluent “soldier” when their investigation takes them to military bases, as it frequently does.

As this story winds its way from Denali to Groom Lake to Incirlik Air Base, Andi has to pull herself together, make a place for herself on the already tight-knit team, and help solve the puzzle of what happened to the experimental helicopter that she and her partner used to fly in a crash that shouldn’t have happened but absolutely did.

Raider is a spy story. And a military story. A puzzle-solving mystery. It’s Andi’s story. And especially and always it’s Miranda’s story – even if she never sees herself at the center of anything except an investigation.

This series is always exciting, nail-biting, and utterly marvelous. It can be read in any order but it’s especially wonderful if you start at the very beginning with Drone. Be prepared for Miranda and her team to take you on one wild ride after another.

Buckle up! Miranda Chase will be back in March in Chinook.

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskyThe Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, espionage, science fiction
Pages: 640
Published by Orbit on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is an extraordinary feat of the imagination and a page-turning adventure about parallel universes and the monsters that they hide.They thought we were safe. They were wrong.Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.Lee thought she'd lost Mal, but now she's miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal's reappearance hasn't gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn't the only one with questions.Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power - and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.Dr Khan's research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through."Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale... a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse." (Booklist)

My Review:

Spy games, cryptids (Sasquatch, Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters, OH MY!) with a nod to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. PLUS a bit of Doctor Who – at least in the audiobook. These are things that absolutely should not go together, but somehow do anyway in The Doors of Eden.

It’s really all about the butterfly. You know the one. That hypothetical butterfly who flaps its wings on one side of the world and causes a tornado on the other.

Only in this case there are perhaps thousands, or even millions of butterflies, each flapping their wings on a slightly different version of our Earth. Or, to put it another way, “the problem with wanting things to change is that things change.” Sometimes by quite a lot and not necessarily for the better.

Depending on who, or what, is defining better, along with who, what or why the change is happening at all.

It all begins with two young women out on Bodmin Moor hunting cryptids. Let’s unpack that a bit. Lee and Mal are childhood best friends who are now in college. Their intense relationship has shifted from friends to lovers over the years they’ve been together. They’re on holiday, between semesters, doing what they do when they’re together. They’re somewhere creepy, looking but not expecting to find something even creepier. And possibly mythical or magical, or maybe even both.

It seems like their cryptid hunting (cryptids are animals whose existence is unsubstantiated, like Bigfoot, or Nessie) is mostly a manifestation of their shared nerdiness. Their admission that they are both a bit weird and might as well embrace the identity they’re going to have to live with anyway.

Neither of them believes that they are EVER going to find real evidence of cryptids. They’re just having fun looking. That is, until the cryptids, or at least one set of cryptids, find them.

And take Mal away to a place that Lee can’t follow, no matter how much she wants to. When Mal returns four years later, she brings the entire rest of this story with her, the spies, the cryptids, the criminal masterminds – and entirely too many signs and portents of the end of the world, not just as we know it, but the impending extinction of all the Earths in all of the multiverse.

Along with one single, one in a billion chance of saving them all.

Escape Rating A+: There was SO MUCH going on in this book. It went to so many fascinating places, dragged in so many interesting possibilities and ended with such a marvelous bang that it’s still an A+ story in my book even if the spies did faff around a bit in the middle.

On the other hand, anyone would flail a bit at all the strange and bizarre things going on in this absolute WOW of a story.

The elements that go into this absolutely should not work together, and yet they oh so very much do. To the point where, although I started out listening to this one – and it is an excellent listen – I got impatient with needing to know how it all managed to get itself together at the end and switched to the ebook just so I could figure things out.

But the audio is where I thought two of those disparate elements came into the mix, although in the end it turned out to be only one.

The reader of the audio is Sophie Aldred, who played Ace on Doctor Who many, many moons ago, when Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor. Although, now that I think of it, the way that the parallel worlds work in The Doors of Eden could be said to have its own parallels in Who.

But I digress.

The other element that I thought came from the audio was the resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, his fascinating and eminently readable book about the Burgess Shale. I listened to that book a LONG time ago, but it stuck with me. And it seemed like the tone of that reading was echoed in The Doors of Eden in the interstitial parts where Dr. Ruth Emerson’s treatise on “Other Edens” is read. Her work on alternate Earths had the same tone as Wonderful Life. I thought it was a coincidence, but it’s not. Wonderful Life is cited by the author as one of the inspirations for The Doors of Eden, and now that I know that it’s obvious that at least part of what it inspired was these sections of the story.

Which leads us to the story itself.

The action and the dramatic tension in this story come from Mal’s return to our own Earth, the mess that return makes of Lee’s life, and the reason for that return in the grand scheme of things.

After all, no matter how much Mal wants to return to her lover, the reason that the Nissa, just one of the so-called cryptids, bring Mal back to the Earth she calls home is a whole lot bigger and vastly more important. Mal is there to rescue mathematician and physicists Dr. Kay Amal Khan so that she can help them save ALL the Earths.

But just as Mal’s friends want to save all the Earths, there are forces that want to, not exactly prevent the rescue, but let’s say, direct that rescue. There’s a criminal mastermind who has, naturally enough, criminal plans. And there are government agencies, in this case MI5, who are tasked with protecting Kay Amal Khan from anyone who wants to either do her harm or co-opt her genius for their own purposes.

That’s where the spy games, in the persons of Julian Sabreur and Alison Matchell come in. Only to find themselves caught up in trying to save the worlds, which is way above both of their official pay grades – even if it’s all still subject to the Official Secrets Act..

There’s a saying that “Mother Nature bats last.” The quote from environmentalist Rob Watson in full goes like this:

Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

In short, that’s what this story is about, Mother Nature batting last. For select versions of Mother Nature, where she’s really a supercomputer bigger than a planet who has been trying for eons to find a way for her last “at bat” to not kill off all of everything everywhere.

Well, not exactly that either. Mother Nature doesn’t care, as the quote says so succinctly. But in this story that supercomputer does. It’s trying to help the beings on various versions of Earth, of which it is one of the few, who have developed enough sentience to not only figure out that the end is coming, but who are working to prevent it.

Which drags in Dr. Khan, and all kinds of cryptids, including the Nissa and the rat people, and Lee and Mal and the spies and the criminal masterminds. This is a story whose plot boils and bubbles – and occasionally squeaks – until the very end.

Until it ends with an almighty bang, as well as a whole lot of whimpering on the part of many of the characters, who are left with a story that they can never, ever tell and the chance to live a life much bigger than the one they thought they had to settle for.

Unless and until Mother Nature comes to bat again. Unless she already has.

Review: A Question of Betrayal by Anne Perry

Review: A Question of Betrayal by Anne PerryA Question of Betrayal (Elena Standish) by Anne Perry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, suspense, thriller, World War II
Series: Elena Standish #2
Pages: 304
Published by Ballantine Books on September 8, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

On her first mission for MI6, the daring young photographer at the heart of this thrilling new mystery series by bestselling author Anne Perry travels to Mussolini's Italy to rescue the lover who betrayed her.
Britain's secret intelligence service, MI6, has lost contact with its informant in northern Italy, just as important information about the future plans of Austria and Nazi Germany is coming to light. And young Elena Standish, to her surprise, is the only person who can recognize MI6's man--because he is her former lover. Aiden Strother betrayed her six years before, throwing shame on her entire family. Now, with so much to prove, Elena heads to Trieste to track down Aiden and find out what happened to his handler, who has mysteriously cut off contact with Britain.
As Elena gets word of a secret group working to put Austria in the hands of Germany, her older sister, Margot, is in Berlin to watch a childhood friend get married--to a member of the Gestapo. Margot and Elena's grandfather, the former head of MI6, is none too happy about the sisters' travels at this tumultuous time, especially when a violent event at home reminds him that even Britain is growing dangerous. As his own investigation collides with his granddaughter's, what's at stake on the continent becomes increasingly frightening--and personal.
Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Europe, New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry crafts a novel full of suspense, political intrigue, and the struggle between love and loyalty to country.

My Review:

The terrific first book in the Elena Standish series, Death in Focus, was an espionage thriller wrapped around a traditional mystery, set in a changing Europe in the years between the Great War and World War II.

The years while Hitler was on his rise to power, the years when those with eyes to see were aware that a second war was on the horizon – no matter how badly they wanted that not to be true. And no matter how many people were willing to compromise anything and everything to keep the fragile peace at ANY cost.

But this second book in the series, set just a few months after the events of Death in Focus, is unquestionably all about the spy games. Not that there aren’t plenty of mysterious things happening, but those mysteries are wrapped around Elena’s mission – to rescue a spy that her government planted six years ago in Austria so that they could have someone on the “inside” if things went the direction that was feared.

Aiden Strother was in deep cover, but his “handler” is dead and his mission is compromised. Someone needs to go to Trieste, warn him, get him out if possible and his information out no matter what. And Elena is the best operative MI6 has for the job – no matter how new she is to the job.

She knows Strother on sight. And he’ll trust her, for the contacts he knows she has in the Foreign Service and MI6, if not for the relationship they once had. Once upon a time, they were lovers. Until Strother stole secrets from the Service and went over to the Austrians, burning Elena’s career in the process.

Now Elena learns he was tasked with becoming a double agent, setup by MI6 to pretend to betray the British. Elena’s career was merely collateral damage to MI6. Even if her grandfather was once the head of the organization. Or perhaps especially because, as Lucas Standish’ successor will do anything to erase the man’s shadow.

But this is a spy game from beginning to end, and nothing is quite as it seems. Not Aiden Strother, not Jerome Bradley, current head of MI6, not the situation in Trieste, and especially not Elena Standish. Whatever she may once have been, whatever she may once have felt, Elena’s experiences in Berlin at the hands of the Gestapo in Death in Focus have changed her focus.

Elena will do what she must, even if she must commit murder, all alone in the dark. After all, all is fair in love and war. And this is war, even if it is conducted in the shadows.

Escape Rating A-: My feelings about this book are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, I found it even more compelling than the first book. On the other, I feel like I have even less of a grasp of Elena’s character than I did in that first book. So I felt driven to keep turning the pages, but it wasn’t Elena’s story that I was turning those pages for. Definitely a paradox as this is supposed to be Elena’s journey and Elena’s series – or it should be as it is named for her.

(I’ve read at least some of three of the author’s previous historical mystery series, and all of those, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, Daniel Pitt, and William Monk, are all unquestionably about the people they’re named for.)

So even though Elena was the one in danger, it was her grandfather Lucas and her sister Margot who seemed to have more compelling narratives. Or perhaps it’s that their stories felt like they had a broader focus on conditions in general. Elena’s story, although it did have implications for the war that no one wants to see on the horizon, was, of necessity, more tightly focused on her need to find Strother and convince him to leave or at least get his information out, while the Fatherland Front for the Nazis in Austria did its best and worst to kill them.

And while Elena’s feelings about Strother complicate her perspective on what’s really going on, both in general and between them in particular. Even though Elena has grown up a bit from the first book, she still reads as a bit naive and much too wrapped inside her own head to be actually good at the job. Although she’s learning, she’s still too emotionally conflicted to draw me in the way that Maisie Dobbs or Bess Crawford do in their respective series. (And they are all readalikes for each other, so if you like one give the others a try!)

Meanwhile, her sister Margot returns to Berlin to attend a friend’s wedding to a young German officer. Because it’s not Margot herself who is directly involved, she has a much clearer picture of the true state of affairs as she watches her friend marry someone who is such a fanatic that Hitler is practically a guest at the wedding, while both the bride and her parents desperately hope that this marriage will protect her and them in the storm to come. So many people on all sides of the wedding seem much more clear-eyed on what the future will bring than Elena playing spy games in Trieste.

But the part of the story that really grabbed my attention was Lucas Standish’ part of the story. He’s supposed to be retired from MI6, but he still has his hand, possibly both hands, into the service that he led for so long. He sees the war coming, and also sees that there are too many in Britain who are so weary of the cost of war that they will rationalize any atrocity in Germany in order to keep their heads in the sand.

And that there are an entirely too well placed few who believe that Germany has the right idea, and that Hitler’s Germany would be a natural ally for Britain. That the atrocities committed by Hitler’s Germany are not merely necessary but are actually a good start to the eradication of people that too many Britons, as well as Germans, believe are less than human.

While Elena is rescuing a spy, and Margot is supporting a friend at the outset of a terrible journey, Lucas is on the hunt for one of those Britons who wants to ally directly with Hitler’s Germany and not only supports his tyranny but possibly wants to import it. And is using MI6, a service that Lucas still loves, in order to subvert the expressed policy of the government.

Lucas is hunting for a traitor who has his eyes on Lucas’ country and his family. His part of the story, figuring out who the traitor is and convincing enough people in high places to root him out is the part of the story that took me for the biggest thrill ride.

So, I’m compelled to continue following the “Standish Saga” as the spy games continue leading straight into the war we all know is coming – even if the character the series is named for is not the character I’m following the series for.

Review: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees

Review: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia ReesMiss Graham's Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 512
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 18, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A striking historical novel about an ordinary young British woman sent to uncover a network of spies and war criminals in post-war Germany that will appeal to fans of The Huntress and Transcription.
World War II has just ended, and Britain has established the Control Commission for Germany, which oversees their zone of occupation. The Control Commission hires British civilians to work in Germany, rebuild the shattered nation and prosecute war crimes. Somewhat aimless, bored with her job as a provincial schoolteacher, and unwilling to live with her stuffy genteel parents any longer, twentysomething Edith Graham applies for a job with the Commission—but is instead recruited by the OSS. To them, Edith is perfect spy material…single, ordinary-looking, with a college degree in German. And there’s another thing—the OSS knows that Edith’s brother went to Oxford with one of their most hunted war criminals, Count Kurt von Stabenow, who Edith remembers all too well from before the war.
Intrigued by the challenge, Edith heads to Germany armed with a convincing cover story: she’s an unassuming schoolteacher sent to help resurrect German primary schools. To send information back to her OSS handlers in London, Edith has crafted the perfect alter ego, cookbook author Stella Snelling, who writes a popular magazine cookery column that embeds crucial intelligence within the recipes she collects. But occupied Germany is awash with other spies, collaborators, and opportunists, and as she’s pulled into their world, Edith soon discovers that no one is what they seem to be. The closer she gets to uncovering von Stabenow’s whereabouts—and the network of German civilians who still support him—the greater the danger. 
With a unique, compelling premise, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is a beautifully crafted and gripping novel about daring, betrayal, and female friendship.

My Review:

Welcome to the Cold War. The same as the old war. Well, not exactly. But it feels like all the forces that set up – and set off, World War II are ALL still around. Even the ones that shouldn’t be after the defeat of the Nazis.

At the same time, in 1946 Germany, we also see the opening stages of what history calls the Cold War, which was only cold because most of the actual fighting was conducted through proxies.

But in the immediate aftermath of WW2, we see the seeds for the next 30ish years of history, along with a whole lot of dirty deeds done in the name of patriotism – or just plain survival.

On the one hand, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook brings this slice of history to life, as Miss Graham finds herself caught between opposing forces – not all of whom were supposed to even be opposing.

As a British operative for the Control Commission for Germany, she’s there to assist with re-opening schools in Germany – and it’s a job that’s sorely needed. On the other hand, she’s trapped in the middle between Operation Paperclip, run by the U.S. and Operation Surgeon, run by Great Britain. Both agencies were formed with the purpose of whitewashing and using selected Nazi personnel with important skills – most famously Wernher von Braun – and denying those people and those skills to the Soviet Union. Justice for the atrocities committed by the Nazis was only to be served on those who were either too infamous to cover up, like Goebbels and Himmler, or too junior or commonplace to be of any use to the victors.

And there was definitely a third hand, that of the people looking for that justice denied. Both the surviving Jewish agents who had seen what happened for themselves, who had lost friends and family and needed an accounting and to see justice served.

Along with Vera Atkins, the director of the Women’s Section of the Strategic Operations Executive in Britain, who needed to find both closure and justice for the operatives that she personally sent into Occupied France and Nazi Germany. Operatives who were betrayed by someone in her own office. She needs to know who, and why, and how, and make sure they get punished for their treason.

If she can. If Edith Graham, using a code derived by a ubiquitous wartime cookbook, can manage to find the information – and keep it from everyone else who wants to use it – and her.

Escape Rating A: Parts of this story have been told before, as part of the action – the search for the fates of the missing female agents – formed the heart of last year’s The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff.

But the story told in Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is both larger, and in the end smaller, than that one. Although they do share a character in Vera Atkins, the real-life head of the Women’s Section of the Special Operations Executive. Atkins was the inspiration for Eleanor Trigg in Lost Girls (and also for Hilda Pierce in Foyle’s War).

Discovering the fate of those lost agents isn’t the only iron that Edith has in the fire in Germany. The bigger story is the one about the so-called “rehabilitation” of the reputations – and definitely not the beliefs – of any Nazis who had skills that could be useful in the coming Cold War. Even as early as 1946, no one in power seemed to have any appetite for bringing the butchers to justice, while everyone was looking to get a leg up on the opposition. Not to mention sniping at each other over the “best” prizes.

Edith is caught in the middle. She sees the conditions in post-war Germany for the hellscape that they have become. She wants to help those who can be helped – especially the children. She refuses to turn a blind eye to the many and varied forms of corruption all around her, not even the ones perpetrated by her own side.

In spite of being nearly 40, Edith has led a relatively sheltered life. She’s well-meaning, but naive to a fault. A fault that everyone around her is more than willing to exploit, from her German lover from before the war to her secretive cousin lurking somewhere in MI6. She may have come to do a job, but she’s there to be used.

And everyone does.

But in the process, following Edith as she does her best to save what she can, help who she can, and get justice where she can, we see that the idealized history that we’ve been taught about the postwar reconstruction of Germany was far, far from the dirty deeds done that couldn’t see the light of day.

So Edith’s part of this story is personal – and by pulling in to her focus, we’re compelled to follow her journey to its end. And beyond.