I was not expecting to become so engrossed. I admit I am a bit of a nut for wartime historical fiction, but In the Garden of Beasts:Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is outside this range on two accounts: it is a non-fiction account of an American ambassador in Germany and it is set in the pre-war period of 1930s Berlin. Nervous about these elements outside of the go-to for WW2 fiction, these turned out to be fascinating and completely compelling for me. I would go so far as to say I devoured this and felt it was a real page turner. I have recommended it to my dad – something I do not do lightly. Starship Troopers was the last title we discussed at length, although I may have convinced him to try Ursula Leguin with my Left Hand of Darkness Cannonball review (http://www.pajiba.com/book_reviews/the-left-hand-of-darkness-by-ursula-k-leguin.php).
An exciting war-time drama about female British agents sent to France during the Nazi occupation, charged with blowing up a crucial telephone exchange the Nazis have set up in a bomb-proof French chateau. The women must disguise themselves as cleaners to gain access to the chateau, and are recruited from all walks of life—the British aristocracy, criminals, even a transvestite—and for all sorts of reasons, with but one goal: to survive long enough to sabotage the exchange and facilitate the success of the Normandy invasion. The process of their recruitment is less than credible, and the behavior of these “agents” sometimes stretches the imagination, but they are colorful and appealing enough as individual personalities to help us embrace them.
Pitted against the group’s fearless leader Felicity Clairet is a cold-blooded German intelligence officer with a special “talent” for interrogation and a dogged determination to capture Felicity and, through her, the entire French resistance. He is an interesting character, a master torturer and psychological manipulator with less of an investment in a Nazi victory than in his own career. His relationship with his French mistress is an evolving one, which also reveals his vulnerabilities, making him an interesting and worthy counterpoint to Felicity.
Jackdaws is a great thriller with an exciting plot, a colorful and mostly believable cast of characters, enough romance thrown in to keep everyone happy, and a nail-biting climax sure to please the most jaded among us. If there is a bit of stereotyping of some of the Nazis (the sadistic torturer, for example), there is also a bit of stereotyping of British intelligence, but neither is so heavy-handed as to ruin a good story. Not great literature, but a good spy story and a fun ride.
Silva’s first book, written before the famous Gabriel Allon series, surprised me with its heavy emphasis on history and much more nuanced characters than his later books offer. I found myself impressed both by Silva’s successful handling of an oft-told if fascinating period of history, and by effective combining of a satisfying political thriller with the personal stories he managed to weave so effectively into the intrigue of the times.
The Unlikely Spy takes place in 1944 in England, where the outcome of the Second World War now relies heavily on the quality of the intelligence and counter-intelligence each side can draw on. History professor Alfred Vicary has been drafted into MI-5 by none other than Churchill himself to run a dis-information operation against the Germany. He is in charge of turning captured Nazi spies, and using them to feed disinformation to German intelligence. He learns that there is a long-buried “sleeper” agent in London who has been activated to uncover the time and place of the Allied landing in France, and must identify the agent while protecting “Operation Mulberry” at all cost.
Vicary is a fascinating character, not one of the political elite but an unassuming professorial sort with a laser-like intelligencel. He has discovered to his surprise that he has a real talent for covert intelligence, but is constantly frustrated by the roadblocks deliberately thrown in his path by his immediate superior at MI-5, Sir Basil Boothby, who appears to be hiding some serious secrets. At the same time, we get to meet a cast of historical figures on the German side, from Hitler, Himmler, and Rommel, to Canaris and Schellenberg, and watch their deadly rivalries play out against the backdrop of war.
And then there is “Catherine Blake,” the beautiful and murderous sleeper agent who almost—but not quite—gets to throw WWII’s victory to the Nazis through her seduction of Operation Mulberry’s chief engineer, American Peter Jordan. Although Silva takes pains to give us an in-depth picture of Blake’s own history, including the fact that she has been blackmailed by the Nazis into becoming one of their super-agents inside England, Blake is nonetheless a scary stone-cold killer who never wins our sympathy. She also never strays too far from the cliché of the femme fatale, which is a notable weakness in Silva’s plot.
Perhaps most fascinating, for me, was the stunning wrap-up at the end of the book, where we not only discover the much deeper waters than ran under the intrigue Vicary was striving so mightily to unravel, but also what lengths the British were willing to go to deploy their psychological spycraft against their own, all in the name of what Kipling so famously called “The Game.” Well done, Mr. Silva.
My sister gave me this book as a gift two or three Christmases ago. I put it on my shelf and forgot about it until a couple of months ago when she guilted me about not having read it. And really, she had a valid point. I’m usually the one who recommends books, and she always reads them, so when she does bother to give me a book I’ve never read before, the least I could do is return the favor. Unfortunately, I had somehow lost my copy, possibly in one of my several moves, possibly due to other unknown factors. So I had to go out and buy a new copy, and that fucker was $15.
Publishing industry, if you’re listening, $15 is too fucking much for a little 200 plus page book.
Guernsey is an epistolary novel that takes place post-WWII on the island of Guernsey, where an impromptu “literary society” popped up in response to the German occupation there. The main character is an author who is corresponding with the island’s inhabitants for research purposes, but she soon finds herself directly wrapped up in their lives.
Anyway, I was a little lost at first, what with the epistolary style and the fact that it just kind of jumps right in. I was just like, “huh?” for about the first ten pages or so, and then BOOM I was kind of in love. That feeling didn’t last all the way through the book, sadly, as the ending did feel a bit contrived and the main character felt a bit shoehorned in, but it was just such a happy little book I don’t even care. If you don’t like emotionally indulgent books, you probably won’t like this, but if you like a little sap and cheese with your steak (I don’t know, it’s late), then you should probably pick this up. The parts where they recount their war experiences were fascinating, and the members of the literary society made me want to move there and join just so I could hang out with them, the weirdos.
All in all, good rec from my sister. God, it’s only taken her twenty-six years to prove useful to me. JUST KIDDING. (That last part was a test to see if she’s reading this. Go about your business.)
One of the most perfectly crafted novels I’ve read in a long time, City of Thieves is a multi-layered story told both simply and irresistibly beautifully. It is the tale of a survivor of the German siege of Leningrad during WWII, told to his grandson about a few days spent as a 17-year-old teen in the company of an AWOL Russian soldier, learning about friendship, sex, courage, patriotism, heartache, and love.
Lev, the virginal teenaged Jewish son of a poet father who was “disappeared” by the Soviet secret police under Stalin, is living alone in besieged and starving Leningrad after his mother and sister flee to the countryside. When he is caught searching the body of a dead German parachutist for food, he is tossed into prison to await execution—the wartime punishment for looting. Thrown into the cell with him is Kolya, a 20-year-old blond, blue-eyed literature-spouting hunk of young Russian manhood who got caught AWOL while searching for some female “company.” Execution is also the punishment for desertion. However, both Lev and Kolya are given a reprieve by a high-level Army colonel whose daughter is about to get married, but only if they can do the impossible–bring back a dozen eggs in four days, in time to make her a traditional wedding cake. This in a city whose population has already eaten its pets, and is down to eating shoe leather.
The two set out, first to scour the Leningrad black market to no avail, and then to cross German lines in search of a reputed farm with reputed chickens laying reputed eggs. Their adventures are many and gruesome, including encounters with cannibals, land mines, Russian partisans, and getting taken prisoners-of-war by the Nazis. Throughout, Kolya is determined to teach Lev the art of wooing a woman to his bed, and we are treated to his and Lev’s many and varied opinions on Russia’s vast literary body of works, the art of chess playing, and the mystic connection between constipation and winning war.
If this sounds like a comedy, be assured that it isn’t. It is a tale of the horrors of war, of death, of sacrifice, but it is leavened by Benioff’s lively wit, meticulous research into the city of Leningrad, and learned appreciation of Russia literary tradition. It is most of all a window into the human soul, as we follow Lev in his search for a dozen eggs and learn with him all there is to know about fear and courage.
Goodreads summary: “On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.”
Life After Life is a fascinating conceptual novel, the potential of which I am not sure was ever fully realized. In many ways, it comes across as a refurbished and more bombastic “Groundhog Day”: more historically captivating (WWII setting) and with the chance to observe Ursula Todd throughout her life as opposed to on just one day, we feel like there is more at stake, but the same basic conceit of being able to re-do your life until you get it right applies.
Ursula, here, doesn’t exactly know that she is re-living her life. She does have premonitions and sometimes strong feelings that she needs to take some kind of decisive action in order to prevent something that feels instinctively bad, which is a clever choice by the author because it keeps the novel grounded in reality despite the somewhat fantastical premise. By connecting Ursula’s “multiple lives” to her intuition and a sense of deja vu, rather than an exact knowledge that she has lived that life before, Atkinson plays on the reader’s questions about life and existence — what does it mean when we get deja vu or that intangible, yet powerful, feeling that something is amiss?
There are some parts of this novel that are extremely difficult to read. I don’t want to get into specifics as they will probably constitute spoilers, but some versions of Ursula’s life are depressing, and others are deeply uncomfortable in different ways. There is one specific version that I found to be incredibly problematic, but again, I can’t really discuss it without giving away a major event. What I will try to say, as cryptically as possible, is that in a story like this, there is the implication that Urusla, or whatever protagonist, is responsible for the outcome by the choices they make. There are some outcomes here that Ursula had absolutely zero control over, but the way the narrative develops suggests that she did, and I found those particular threads to be kind of presumptuous at best and offensive at worst.
Otherwise, the overall story was very engaging and the prose lyrical and tight. It was sometimes hard to tell when one life was ending and a new one beginning, but there is a pattern to the chapters to help make it more clear. At the end, despite being harrowing at times and problematic at others, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it. I have seen some reviews with proclamations that this book may be some kind of manual or have a moral message; I wouldn’t go that far. When you look at the choices that led Ursula to her happiest life, they weren’t necessarily the most enlightened or selfless, but they did make the most sense. Maybe that’s what the message is, then: have some common sense.
Now this, folks, THIS is how you do a book right. Code Name Verity is set during World War II and tells the story of two friends, Queenie and Maddie. Queenie, a Scottish girl serving in the British army, is captured in Germany and in her captivity, she is allowed paper to write down her story, telling both how she came to be in the position she was and how she and Maddie became friends.
I don’t want to reveal much more of the story for fear of spoiling it, and plus, Queenie tells it a heck of a lot better anyways. Queenie is a fierce little thing whose Scottish accent (and temper) comes out when she gets angry. Even though the novel is written in epistolary form, which I find sometimes to be static and one-sided, you get a great sense of who Queenie is and there is a great deal of humor, suspense, heart and drama.
I loved every page of this book and I knew going into it that there would be a twist or two, but this book had more loops than a roller coaster. I’m one of those people who likes to try to figure out what the plot twists are going to be, and while I got some, Wein certainly threw a few curveballs at me that I did not see coming and she hit it out of the park (hey look, a baseball analogy!).
POSSIBLE OBLIQUE SPOILER AHEAD
REALLY, NOT THAT BAD, BUT DON’T READ ON IF YOU WANT TO BE TOTALLY UNAWARE
What I really and truly loved about Wein’s writing style is that she just kept the twists coming and when the big scene comes, the one where you wait for the miraculous twist, you just know it’s coming… it doesn’t come. That scene sucker punched me right in the gut. I’m actually tearing up just writing about it, so kudos for that, Ms. Wein
This is a book that I need to read over again so I can piece in the information that is revealed later on. And when the time comes for that re-read, I will do so with pleasure. Basically, this book is wonderful. The characters are wonderful, the story is wonderful, the mystery and intrigue are wonderful, so go read it and see for yourself.
This was such a great novel! I was very impressed with the story and how much research the author incorporated into the book. The novel begins with the written confession of “Verity,” or Queenie as she refers to herself, a British agent captured in France by German agents. After being tortured, she has agreed to give the Germans the information they want and has already revealed codes. Given her status, she knows she has very little time left before she dies, and realizes that once they have her confessions she will likely die or get sent somewhere even worse than the Gestapo headquarters. As a result, her confessions may seem a bit long, chronicling her friendship with Maddie, an English pilot, before she finally reveals more about herself and her mission, but her captors are both impatient and oddly tolerant of her tangents. The commander of the Gestapo frightens Queenie but often surprises her with his knowledge of literature, even stating that she is a student of the novel, and writing her story in that way. Queenie does an amazing job of telling her and Maddie’s story while interspersing her present day predicament and the fear she faces.
In the Garden of Beasts is not kind to the subject of its story. Erik Larson writes a compelling account of the ambassadorship of William E. Dodd and his family during their time in pre-WWII Germany as Hitler rises to power, but he does not pull any punches with regard to the astounding naiveté and ignorance with which they enter Berlin society during the rise of the Nazi party.
Dodd was considered a milquetoast of a man, quiet and unassuming, a lifelong academic from a poor family in rural North Carolina whose dream was to complete his A History of the Old South. His one ambition was to become an ambassador, and though he would have preferred Paris, he had studied as a graduate student at the University of Leipzig and spoke nearly flawless German, so when President Roosevelt couldn’t find any one else to take the job, Dodd was offered the post of Ambassador to Germany in 1934. Thinking this would be an easy posting with plenty of time for writing and research on his History, Dodd accepted.