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Posts Tagged ‘France’

The Russia of Joseph Kanon’s Defectors (Atria, digital galley via NetGalley) is the Soviet Union circa 1961, gray and grim as the Cold War. Even the Party faithful have to wait in long lines for food and depend on the black market for basic amenities. Simon Weeks has often wondered why his older brother Frank, a CIA golden boy, chose to defect in 1949. Was it money, ideology, gamesmanship? Now Frank has written his KGB-approved memoirs and asks Simon, who became a publisher after his brother’s defection ended his State Department career, to edit the manuscript. Simon discovers his brother is as charming and wily as ever, even though he is accompanied everywhere by a minder, and the restricted, isolated lifestyle has turned his beautiful wife Joanna into an alcoholic. They consort only with other defectors, from famous figures like Guy Burgess to anonymous research scientists. A recent death in the group is presumed a suicide. When Frank begins to show his hand, Simon senses something is up and must fall back on old tradecraft. Betrayal is in the air, murder in a cathedral.

Kanon, who has written spy thrillers set in Istanbul, Berlin and Los Alamos, is at the top of his game. Defectors offers suspense and atmosphere galore, but it also explores the perplexing nature of a double agent, as well as enduring questions of loyalty to family and country. A timely tale.

I didn’t know much about World War I spies beyond Mata Hari until I read Kate Quinn’s compelling The Alice Network (HarperCollins, digital galley via edelweiss). The title comes from the name of a real-life group of female agents who operated in France during the Great War. American college student Charlie St. Clair first learns about the network in 1947 when she tries to find her cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the more recent war. Eve Gardiner, a reclusive, ill-tempered alcoholic and former Alice spy living in London, initially resists Charlie’s entreaty for help — she draws a gun on her — before setting out for France in her vintage roadster driven by charming ex-con Finn.

Quinn expertly propels parallel storylines, alternating between the 1947 road trip with its twists and dead ends, and Eve’s recruitment as a spy in 1915 and her dangerous work for the Alice network. Both stories, which eventually connect, are absorbing adventures, although Eve’s is the more harrowing as she becomes the unwilling mistress of a powerful German sympathizer. Still, Charlie also proves to be a resourceful, conflicted character with a not-so-little problem. Suspense increases as secrets come to light in both narratives. The Alice Network is sad and heart-breaking but also hopeful and redemptive.

In Mark Mills’ deft cat-and-mouse game of a thriller, Where Dead Men Meet (Blackstone Audio, digital galley via NetGalley), someone is trying to kill Luke Hamilton. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity in 1937 Paris, where Hamilton is assigned to the British Embassy. He is grieving at the news of the murder in England of Sister Agnes, the nun who took him in as an abandoned baby 25 years ago. Readers already know Sister Agnes’ murder is connected to the attempt on Luke’s life, but it is the appearance of the mysterious Bernard Fautrier who warns Luke he is in real danger.  The race — to escape the killers and to find out their motives — takes Luke to Nazi Germany, to neutral Switzerland, to enigmatic Venice. There are moments of exquisite tension, although the resolution of the main mystery comes a little too early. Still, complications ensue as table turns. Revenge is cold and deadly.

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roseRose Justice is a pilot, a poet, a POW. Most importantly, though, she has a promise to keep — “to tell the world” about the Nazi atrocities at the infamous World War II concentration camp Ravensbruck.

Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire (Disney/Hyperion, digital galley) is a companion volume to the award-winning Code Name Verity, and while a couple of characters overlap, it tells a very different story of friendship and bravery juxtaposed with the horrors of war. Most of it is told in retrospect by Rose, a young American volunteer transport pilot, and the beginning reads like a gallant girl’s adventure story with Rose training in England and being romanced by a soldier. But the tone changes drastically after Rose is forced down over enemy territory while flying transport and is captured by the Germans. Sent to Ravensbruck as a “skilled worker,” she suffers deprivations and humiliations, but nothing like what happens when she refuses to make fuses for flying bombs. Viciously beaten, she is thrown in with the political prisoners and sheltered by “the Polish rabbits,” the secretly defiant women and girls subjected to torturous medical experiments.

Readers know that Rose survived; interspersed sections find her writing furiously from a Paris hotel room, feeling like “a flea in a jewel box.” Eventually, she is brave enough to recount the desperate details of life — and  death — at the camp, plus her daring escape. A final section finds Rose several years later reporting on the Nuremburg trials. The whole is harrowing and heartbreaking, with indelible scenes: two Nazi guards fighting over the wrapper of a chocolate bar, the prisoners standing up for hours in the rain and cold, Ravensbruck as seen from the air, its lights shining from impenetrable darkness.

aftermathEverything is grey in Hamburg in 1946 — the devastated city, the dusty air, the defeated faces of the surviving population, mostly women and orphaned, feral children poking through the endless piles of rubble. This then is the bleak backdrop for Rhidian Brook’s intriguing novel The Aftermath (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), inspired by a family story. British Col. Lewis Morgan is charged with rebuilding the city even as he is reconstructing his own life in peacetime. His wife Rachael is unhappy to discover that Morgan has offered to share their requisitioned house with its owners, architect Stefan Lubert and his rebellious teenage daughter Freya, and she initially avoids the “enemy” in the upstairs apartment. But both families have suffered grievous losses in the war that provide a common ground of sorts, although Freya scorns the Morgans and takes up with a young German activist whose terrorist plotting could destroy the uneasy peace.

Col. Morgan’s efforts to reconcile the British occupation with the local citizenry is thwarted not only by pockets of resistance but also by the despicable actions of some of his own troops, who are hoarding the spoils of war. Brook invests his atmospheric story with themes of honor and forgiveness, love among the ruins, aptly painting all in shades of grey.

stellabainIn Anita Shreves’ involving Stella Bain (Little, Brown, digital galley), battles are fought both in the trenches of World War I France and in fine New England houses thousands of miles away. The combatants in both are wounded in mind and spirit. In a field hospital in 1916 Marne, a woman wakes up with only fragments of memory. Her accent identifies her as an American, she thinks her name is Stella Bain and that she knows how to drive an ambulance. But she believes the clues to her past lie in London, and it is there that a doctor’s wife finds her shivering in a park. Cranial surgeon August Bridge knows shell shock when he sees it, and he and wife Lily take Stella into their home. Some preliminary sessions of psychoanalysis help Stella recover more memories, some of which she depicts in her accomplished artwork. Then someone recognizes Stella — and she is not Stella.

The rest of the book follows the woman previously known as Stella Bain to the States to claim her complicated past, including the children she left behind with her professor husband. Shreve adroitly weaves information about shell shock — just being discovered in women — into the fabric of her hopeful tale of war and remembrance.

girlbehindMany coincidences and a single painting link two love stories — one in World I France, one in London 90 years later — in JoJo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind (Pamela Dorman/Viking, digital galley). In 1916, the Germans occupy a small village in northern France, home to 22-year-old Sophie LeFevre. Her husband Edouard is an artist being held in a “reprisal” camp, and Sophie makes dangerous sacrifices and compromises trying to keep her family alive and to reunite with Edouard.

In 2006 London, widowed 32-year-old Liv Halston’s most prized possession is the portrait “The Girl You Left Behind,” a gift from her late husband. But then the Lefevre family brings a restitution suit against Liv, claiming that the portrait of Sophie painted by Edouard rightfully belongs to them. To further complicate matters. Liv discovers that the new man in her life, Paul, is heading up the LeFevre’s case. The circumstances of the plot may come off as contrived, and the legal battle trifling compared to Sophie’s ordeal, but the actions and emotions of both heroines ring true to time and place.

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Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels unreel like classic black-and-white films, so it’s fitting that Frederic Stahl, the hero of Mission to Paris (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is a handsome Hollywood actor. Loaned out by Warner Bros. to Paramount France in the summer of 1938, Stahl will play a soldier returning from the Great War, a role like many of his others, “a warm man in a cold world.” But because he was born in Vienna, and Germany is now allied with Austria, Stahl is of particular interest to the Nazi propagandists who want to use him in their “rapprochement” campaign with the French. Repelled by the Germans and Hitler, Stahl takes on another role for the American embassy, passing on information gleaned from cocktail parties, “pillow talk” and a Berlin film festival. Not surprisingly, he finds he has talents as a spy and becomes caught up in more pre-war intrigue threatening the cast and crew of his film as they shoot on location in Morocco and Hungary.

This is all familiar, beloved territory for Furst fans. No one is better at evoking the shadows falling across Europe “as the lights go out,” and ordinary souls reacting to extraordinary circumstances. A few characters from previous books make appropriate cameos, and, of course, there is the requisite scene at the Brasserie Heininger and its most-requested Table 14. The atmosphere is thick with secrets, romance, unease, suspicion. Stahl plays the lead, but Paris is again the star.

Joseph Kanon expertly evokes the crossroads of Europe and Asia in Istanbul Passage (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley). It’s 1945, and the war is pretty much over, but Turkey continues its precarious balancing act of “neutrality,” spying on everyone. American expat businessman Leon Bauer, whose hospitalized German-Jewish wife has retreated from the real world after witnessing a tragedy, is an”irregular,” an off-the-books occasional spy. But then an appointed meeting with a Romanian defector that should have been routine goes awry, shots are fired, and suddenly Leon is a secret agent for real. “The  lies got easier, one leading to the next until you believed them yourself.”

Kanon’s story is as layered as Istanbul itself with history, religion, politics and culture. The Americans want to find the leak in their intelligence headquarters. The Russians want the Romanian, implicated in wartime atrocities. The Turkish police are looking for a killer, and the Turkish secret service is keeping tabs on the old boats in the harbor filled with Jewish refugees looking for safe passage to Palestine. How much is a human life worth, and does it matter if that life belongs to a former enemy? Leon has choices to make as an American, a spy, a husband and a lover, but all are risky, physically and morally. Kanon is right there with Furst and le Carre in depicting the spies’ world of smoke and mirrors, way more than fifty shades of gray.

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I’m not sure why I put off reading Code Name Verity, the new historical novel from Elizabeth Wein that was published last month. I’d heard good things about it, and I’d had the galley for awhile. But a story about two English girls during World War II, one of whom has been captured by the Gestapo, sounded like something that might end in tears, and the cover didn’t help, with its picture of two arms bound at the wrist with twine and “verity” spelled out in blood-red type. So not a beach book.

Then I started reading it Sunday during a rain delay in the French Open finals, and just as well the match was eventually postponed. “I am a coward.”

I couldn’t put it down. “I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was.”

Really, I think I carried it into the kitchen to get another Diet Coke   “I have always been good at pretending.”

I finished it as the evening news came on. Even then, I half-expected a report on the Nazi occupation of France and RAF missions over the Channel. I was still in 1943 with Verity.

Of course, that’s a code-name. Her friends call her Queenie, because she comes from a family of aristocratic Scots with their own castle. Really, if it hadn’t been for the war breaking down class barriers she’d probably never have met Maddie, whose Russian grandfather has a bike shop near Manchester. The two would never have become best friends, “a sensational team” until a mission to France goes awry, with spy Queenie parachuting early into enemy territory and pilot Maddie crash-landing their plane.

I’m not going to tell you a lot more because it would spoil a plot so cleverly constructed that you race through the book as if running pell-mell through the woods, no time to stop and look at the trees much less picture the forest.

Queenie is writing for her life, confessing “absolutely every detail” to a Gestapo captain and his henchwoman in exchange for no more torture and a few more days before her inevitable fate. She’ll give up codes, locate airfields, detail all the planes Maddie flew. Just keep her in ink and paper — creamy hotel stationery from the chateau-turned-prison, a Jewish doctor’s prescription pad, sheet music from a vanished student. She is alternately terrified, impudent, rebellious and self-deprecating as she writes about herself in the third-person from Maddie’s point of view, mostly because she can’t stand to think about her old self, “so earnest and self-righteous and flamboyantly heroic.”

I’m going to stop now. There are only so many times I can reread certain phrases, like quotes from Peter Pan, or “Fly the plane, Maddie,” or “Kiss me, Hardy!” without scaring the cat with my sobs. And that’s the truth.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Hyperion via NetGalley). It’s being marketed as a YA book, but like John Green’s recent The Fault in Our Stars, it should reach a wide crossover audience.

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