Tag Archives: spies

Penguin Modern Classics: A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

A Small Town in Germany by John Le CarreOn 27 September 2018, Penguin completed its nine-year project to publish 21 of John Le Carré’s novels as Penguin Modern Classics, making him the living author with the greatest number of works awarded this classics status. New to the list will be Little Drummer Girl, which the BBC is about to bring to our small screens. I’m really proud to have been invited to take part in the blog tour to celebrate the project, as well as the BBC series of Little Drummer Girl. It’s my role to introduce you to A Small Town In Germany, which, like so many in the Le Carré Penguin Modern Classics has such a gorgeous, striking cover.

A Small Town in Germany was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2011 but the book itself first appeared in print back in 1968 and is one of the spy novels that doesn’t feature George Smiley. Here is a little of what the novel is about:

West Germany, a simmering cauldron of radical protests, has produced a new danger to Britain: Karfeld, menacing leader of the opposition. At the same time Leo Harting, a Second Secretary in the British Embassy, has gone missing – along with more than forty Confidential embassy files. Alan Turner of the Foreign Office must travel to Bonn to recover them, facing riots, Nazi secrets and the delicate machinations of an unstable Europe in the throes of the Cold War.

As Turner gets closer to the truth of Harting’s disappearance, he will discover that the face of International relations – and the attentions of the British Ministry itself – is uglier that he could possibly have imagined.

The small German town in question is Bonn, West Germany, and it’s a foggy, wet place – a dangerous place in this time of Cold War and suspicion. It is a time when Europe is trying to draw closer together, to tighten its Union, in the face of a considerable amount of instability and hostility. Alan Turner isn’t keen to visit but he has no choice. It’s in Bonn that he must look for the missing British Embassy Secretary, Leo, a man that remains elusive throughout the novel.

The Little Drummer Girl by John Le CarreA Small Town in Germany is one of Le Carre’s earliest novels and takes place without the presence of George Smiley. Nevertheless, it still contains the hallmarks of Le Carré’s skill – his ability to describe in great detail without giving much away, keeping the reader as much in the dark as his agents. The time and place are evoked with great clarity, despite the puzzles that haunt each page.

I’ve read most of Le Carré’s novels over the years and I would definitely call myself a fan. I do think that A Small Town in Germany is one of the more challenging of the books – it takes a while to establish in which direction it’s heading and it can, at times, confuse – but it is so steeped in the times, which seem particularly pertinent now.

I have a spare copy of A Small Town in Germany to give away, so if you’d like to read it, please leave a comment here or on Twitter.

This is such an exciting blog tour to be a part of, with each stop focusing on a different book. A spy book bonanza! For the other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster.

John le Carre - Blog Tour Card

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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2018 (6 September) | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book

Transcription by Kate AtkinsonIn 1940 Juliet Armstrong, a young woman of just 18 years old, is recruited by the secret service to monitor a group of Fifth Columnists. They regularly meet in London and are led by Godfrey Toby, a man they believe to be a Nazi spy but who is in fact working for the British secret service. It will be Juliet’s job to transcribe their bugged and recorded conversations, a task that both bores and thrills Juliet. She also wants to impress her boss, the enigmatic and curious Peregrine Gibbons. But soon Juliet is given a more active role, undercover, becoming perilously involved with the fascists she must spy upon.

In 1950 the war is long over but any hopes that Juliet might have that the past is behind her are terrifyingly crushed. The work of the secret service continues, fighting a different kind of war with a new enemy, and Juliet, now a producer working at the BBC, is about to get entangled again. She begins to see faces from the past and she knows that they are due a reckoning.

I fell in love with Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I knew that Transcription, a novel I’ve longed to read, would be every bit as good and I was not disappointed. This is an author who writes literary fiction that is also accessible, warm and wise, witty and clever, despairing and loving – and Transcription confirms all of this. A thrilling and compelling plot is wrapped up in a time-shifting, multi-layered narrative in which Juliet’s life, and all of the people who made it what it was, is revealed before us. It demands an emotional response from the reader while at the same time he or she will marvel at just how much there is to be found in this book. It’s an extraordinary achievement for so much to be packed in to a novel shorter than 350 pages.

I’m so pleased that Kate Atkinson returned to the Second World War for Transcription. I can’t get enough of World War Two spy thrillers at the moment and so this was perfectly timed and reminded me in such a good way of the pleasure I recently had reading Our Friends in Berlin. On the surface Transcription is a fine war thriller but it also digs deeply into the motivations of people who desperately want to retain for themselves their inner beliefs. Much here is suppressed, whether it’s a political allegiances or an affair of the heart. This is a time of secrets and a time when people were paid to hunt them out.

Juliet is a wonderful main character. Her youth initially marks her out as almost naive and there’s much pleasure to be had in the chapters in which she tries to make sense of the conversations she is transcribing. These transcriptions can be found throughout the book, reinforcing the historical context of the novel while also lifting the mood. And that is arguably what the book is about – how do you transcribe people? How do you work them out when there is so much interference between you and them? For Juliet has so much more to understand than the words of Fifth Columnists.

Juliet is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters, some larger than life, others quietly existing in the background, others whose lives are pinched out. It’s fascinating as well as tense watching these relationships work themselves out.

Kate Atkinson’s writing is so beautiful. It’s elegant and warm. It reflects how well she understands the people she has brought to life, their aspirations and their fears. And yet wit and elegance can hide something else far darker and this is shown so well in the contrast between the politeness and manners of many of the novel’s characters with the ugliness of some of their secret thoughts and the brutal actions that they can spur. This is war after all.

The novel takes place over several years, moving backwards and forwards between them, and so it pays to stay alert. This is a book that rewards the reader – there are moments here that astounded me as well as others that profoundly moved me.

Kate Atkinson is consistently one of the very finest authors around today – very clever but also accessible – and Transcription demonstrates yet again why. Don’t miss it. I must also mention that the hardback, complete with ribbon, is a thing of beauty.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins

Night Flight to Paris by David Gilman

Head of Zeus | 2018 (9 August) | 486p | Review copy | Buy the book

Night Flight to Paris by David GilmanIt is February 1943 and the German Occupation of France has Paris in its grip. The city’s Resistance cell is on the run, the Nazis on its tail. Men and women will be captured, they will be tortured for information, there will be deaths. Allied intelligence has no choice. They must send someone to Paris to pick up the pieces, to form another cell, and to complete the vanquished cell’s unfinished business – to find a man hunted by Germans and allies alike. He has information that could change the course of the war. The man to be sent to Paris is Harry Mitchell. He’s perfect for the job. He’s a mathematician and codebreaker at Bletchley Park but he also used to live in Paris before he had to flee in 1941 leaving his wife and daughter behind. And now they’re in the hands of the Gestapo. Mitchell is determined to get them back.

Occupied Paris is a city at war with itself. The Nazis are not the only enemy. Informers, spies, collaborators, and competing Resistance factions have made Paris even more lethal. The leaders of the SS and the Gestapo, also fighting amongst themselves for dominance, are infiltrating Parisian society, enjoying the cultural perks of the French capital, Parisian mistresses on their arm and in their bed, before descending into the city’s most frightening spaces to torture members of the Resistance. Harry Mitchell has no illusions about how dangerous Paris will be. He knows he will probably be killed and nastily. But first he has to get to Paris and his night flight will test his endurance to the limit.

David Gilman is well known for his Master of War series – a series I love – set during the Hundred Years War of the 14th century. In this standalone novel, David Gilman moves forward 600 years to another conflict and the result, Night Flight to Paris, is every bit as good, if not even better, than his medieval series. This is a very clever novel, its complex, tense plot beautifully crafted and gripping throughout. It starts off running and the pace doesn’t slacken once.

Harry Mitchell is a fascinating, likeable, courageous and potentially ruthless protagonist. For much of the time he is almost literally in the dark, forming his cell of Resistance fighters out of strangers, aware that any one of them could be a traitor, and yet camaraderie draws them together. Ultimately, Mitchell is a spy, his whole life in France and Paris is built on secrets and lies and he holds it all together with his cunning and genius. And not a little luck. There are others here that we grow attached to, even though we’re not quite sure if they can be trusted, and they are wonderfully portrayed by David Gilman, each a character in their own right, men and women, young and old, especially a radio operator whose courage is extraordinary.

I urge you to read this novel and meet these fantastic characters. To feel the tension of following them through the danger of missions and just in daily life, which can be every bit as terrifying, waiting for a car to screech to a halt outside the door, for the sound of boots running up the stairs, the bang on the door, the guns in the face.

Night Flight to Paris is a magnificent war spy thriller. I couldn’t read it fast enough. Clever, complex, gripping, emotionally engaging, terrifying. And so much more. A stand out novel of the year for me and one that kept me reading late into the summer night.

I must also mention that this is another of those gorgeous Head of Zeus hadbacks, complete with a ribbon! I do love a ribbon…

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War 2)
Gate of the Dead (Master of War 3) – review and interview
Guest post – War in The Last Horseman
Viper’s Blood (Master of War 4)
Extract from Vipers Blood
Scourge of Wolves (Master of War 5)

Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn

Jonathan Cape | 2018 (12 July) | 288p | Review copy | Buy the book

Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony QuinnIt is March 1941 and London is enduring the nightly torment of the Blitz. Jack Hoste is an Air Raid Warden and he spends more nights than not searching the ruins for life. Not even his own home is safe from the bombs. But this is only one side of Hoste’s life. He has worked to gather a group of Fifth Columnists, Nazi sympathisers who want nothing more than to welcome Hitler and his troops to British shores. Hoste collects their information. He is their Gestapo master with a direct line to Hitler’s headquarters. Through him, they can shape the outcome of the war. Or so they think. Hoste has his on target in mind – to find Marita Pardoe, the most dangerous spy on British soil.

Amy Strallen has a most curious job. She works at a marriage bureau and her role is to matchmake. Amy had thought that business would fall off after the outbreak of war but, on the contrary, men and women seem keener than ever to find their partner for life. The fear of death – either on the battlefield or in the Blitz – has done that. One day a new potential client arrives at the Bureau’s door, Jack Hoste. He has reason to believe that Amy Strallen may be the only person who can lead him to Marita Pardoe. Amy’s life it about to be transformed and so, too, is Jack Hoste’s.

Our Friends in Berlin is the first novel by Anthony Quinn that I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last – I loved this novel. It presents the perfect blend – wartime spy story, with all of the tension and secrets that you’d wish for, and a deeply affecting love story that seems all of the more fragile because of the times in which it is set. London during the Blitz is terrifyingly brought to life as ordinary people grow used to constant sirens, sleeping in shelters, the noise, death and chaos all around them. I can’t think of another novel I’ve read that made it feel as horrific and yet also so extraordinarily mundane – this is what life has become and people dealt with it. True courage is shown in these pages alongside the fear and worry. I was immediately caught up in it all. And that’s even more I got to know the novel’s wonderful characters.

Both Jack and Amy are thoroughly fascinating and fully developed individuals. They are so different from one another but each as interesting. Jack’s secrets have made him the man he is. We only learn very slowly more about who that man is. Amy is as much in the dark as we are, even more so. Their stories couldn’t be more rewarding to read about.

Our Friends in Berlin moves to and fro between the years, taking us to 1930s’ Germany as well as to later in the war. I was hooked throughout. More than anything, the novel has such a strong plot and it is supported by an unexpected emotional side. War, particularly the First World War, has cast a deep shadow over many of the novel’s characters. Loss is commonplace but always terrible just the same. It’s not surprising that so many people are searching for love, especially as many have already experienced it and had it violently torn from them. The Nazi threat is also extremely real and very, very close. The work of the Fifth Columnists, including the enigmatic and curiously fascinating Marita Pardoe, is a genuine threat.

Our Friends in Berlin is such an involving and at times emotional tale of spies, love, menace and courage during the Blitz and its aftermath. It is superb. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley

Pan | 2018 (26 July) | 590p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Love Letter by Lucinda RileyIt is the winter of 1995 and Sir James Harrison, the most famous and respected actor of the century, dies in his London home at the age of 95. His presence was larger than life and so, in death, he leaves behind a family who miss him dreadfully, especially his granddaughter Zoe, her son Jamie, and her brother Marcus. They can hardly realise that Sir James has also left behind a secret of such a magnitude that it could strike right at the heart of the British Establishment. The powers that be will do absolutely everything in their power to prevent that happening.

Joanna Haslam is a young journalist learning the ropes at a major national newspaper. She’s given the job of covering Sir James’s funeral, an event that will bring out the rich and the famous in number, including his beautiful granddaughter Zoe, a famous actress in her own right. Joanna finds herself sitting next to an old woman, Rose, who needs her help getting back to her dishevelled flat. And it’s there that Joanna learns of a letter, the contents of which have been fought for for over seventy years. With her curiosity pricked, Joanna sets out to learn the truth about the letter, to identify the people it mentions. As far as the Establishment is concerned, this could be the last thing that Joanna ever does. And she isn’t the only innocent person who will be caught up in their urgent efforts to destroy this love letter once and for all.

I picked up The Love Letter, not only because I was intrigued by its premise, but also because I was in the mood for a grand saga of love and secrets, spies and treachery – an escapist read. At 600 pages long, The Love Letter is certainly of grand saga length and it hooked me instantly. Lucinda Riley’s lovely prose dances along. Its characters are warmly presented and developed – except for those who deserve their cold treatment – and I was soon caught up in the stories of Joanna and the hapless Marcus, in Zoe and her secret and potentially life-changing love affair, in Simon whose secrets are threatening to consume his life, and in the tale of Sir James in the past. There are so many hearts at risk of being broken in this gorgeous novel.

The novel was originally written in 1998 and published as Seeing Double in 2000. Not much was made of it then because the time was not right for it, largely, the author explains, because of Princess Diana’s death and the public perception of the monarchy and the Establishment at that time. Reading it now, it almost has the feel of historical fiction. It is a book set in the 1990s and is also a product of that time and I really, really liked that. It has a nostalgic feel to it for me – the days before mobile phones and the internet took over completely and a time when stories like this really could have happened away from the gaze of the media. Again, as the author says in the foreword, this could not happen now. And so I was very happy to lose myself in this other time, almost an alternate historical past, as we slowly watch this enormous secret unveiled. Perhaps a secret that would have less resonance now (although maybe not) but twenty years ago may have been catastrophic for society.

I was so intrigued to know what it’s all about! Lucinda Riley certainly knows how to spin a tale and to keep the reader hanging on until the very last minute. Joanna is relentless in her hunt for the truth but the ramifications of her endeavours have devastating results for so many people and this erodes Joanna’s confidence and security. I longed for it all to work out for her. Her relationships with Simon and Marcus are so absorbing to read about. We have enough pages here to know these characters deeply. I love that. And also that we can spend an equally large amount of time with Zoe. She deserves it. In some ways elements of her story are extremely topical.

Rarely have I read 600 pages so quickly – in under two days. I lapped it up and loved it. I really enjoyed all of its different locations and its huge array of characters, so many of whom have secrets. It’s such a good story and I love how Lucinda Riley tells it. The perfect holiday read.

Star of the North by D.B. John

Harvill Secker | 2018 (Hb: 10 May; ebook: 3 May) | 440p | Review copy | Buy the book

Star of the North by DB JohnIn June 1988, teenager Soo-min, a Korean American, disappeared along with her boyfriend from a beach in South Korea. The young couple were presumed drowned but Soo-min’s twin sister Jenna has never stopped believing that she is still alive and she has continued to search for her. The years have gone by, 22 of them, and now it looks as if the truth might be known and it’s a terrible truth. A captured North Korean submarine captain has admitted that years before he snatched people from beaches and carried them to North Korea. Soo-min and her boyfriend were just two of many. Jenna will do anything to find out Soo-min’s fate, even if that means changing her life completely, becoming a spy and undertaking a daring mission into North Korea.

North Korea is unlike anywhere else on Earth. The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, is worshipped as a living god while his adoring subjects endure deprivations beyond imagining, with little food or light, literally working as slaves to fund their Dear Leader’s lavish lifestyle and secret projects. Mrs Moon is trying to keep herself and her husband alive by working in her spare time at a market selling food. It’s a terribly risky business and the borderline between survival and starvation is thin. By contrast Colonel Cho appears to have it all. He believes in Kim Jong-Il, he has a family he loves and can provide for and his future looks bright. Until the day comes that proves just how unsafe all lives are in this state.

I thought I knew a little about North Korea but this fantastic thriller shows me just how little that was. D.B. North has the credentials – he’s visited North Korea, he’s seen its control and influence over its citizens for himself and he brings all of this to bear in Star of the North. The portrait of North Korea is utterly compelling – but it also repels. This is an appalling state of affairs and we see it in action here as it affects all levels of North Korean society, or rather the privileged and the starving.

The story is engrossing and made even more so by the fact that we follow a number of lives through the novel, in the US and in North Korea. Jenna, Mrs Moon and Cho each have their motives, the force that drives them on, and they are all totally committed to their path. It is also extremely exciting and thrilling, full of surprises and shocks as well as moments of such tension. And it couldn’t be more topical.

I longed for Jenna to find the answers she was searching for and I agonised for Mrs Moon and Cho. Mrs Moon, for me, is the heart of this wonderful novel. Her story is astonishing.

I can’t praise this intense and thoroughly absorbing political/spy thriller enough. It’s an eye opener about North Korea and is genuinely shocking. It’s also a page turner and no wonder because it tells a brilliant story and its people are wholly believable – I cared deeply. Star of the North is a topical and relevant thriller, enormously exciting, extremely intelligent, beautifully written and not to be missed.

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. For other stops, please take a look at the poster below.

Star of the North blog tour poster

London Rules by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2018 (1 February) | 345p | Bought copy | Buy the book

London Rules by Mick HerronLondon Rules is the fifth book in Mick Herron’s Slough House series of spy novels. This is, though, only the first I’ve read, which definitely puts me at a disadvantage when trying to review it and so, as it is a bought book and not a review copy, I’m just going to attempt a shortish review about why I’ve now gone and bought up the entire backlist.

Slough House in London is a place where spies go when they’re in disgrace and nothing more is expected from them, except for the forlorn hope that they won’t cause any more trouble for Queen and Country. These men and women are the Slow Horses of the secret service and they’re led by the extraordinary Jackson Lamb, a man who is held together by bad habits. The rest are a mix of alcoholics, drug addicts, deranged techies, with even the odd psychopath thrown in. Unfortunately one of them has become involved in the biggest crisis facing M15 and M16 today. A gang of terrorists is working to a plan to throw the country into chaos, beginning with a mass shooting in a small village in Derbyshire. Matters aren’t helped by the uneasy and volatile relationship between the teetering Prime Minister, the rogue MP who launched Brexit and a popular Muslim mayor candidate. The whole situation is about to explode and, unfortunately, Slough House is on the case.

The story is brilliant! I loved the way multiple threads are followed at the same time, some coming together, others not, but the huge appeal of this book, and I presume the others, is its characters. Not just the Slow Horses themselves but everyone who passes through the pages. Some might only pop by but they’re still painted with full colour and personality. The Slow Horses themselves, though, are priceless. The IT expert Roddy’s innate belief and confidence in himself as a man beloved by women is laugh outloud funny. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t even realise when he’s being tortured – he just thinks he’s helping people with their enquiries and is pleased to be so useful. The other Slow Horses are also a joy but with some there is also a touch of pathos. One or two are traumatised. There’s another one who’s just discovered that there’s only one situation in which he feels truly alive – and that isn’t a situation that’s good for anyone.

London Rules is a very funny book. Mick Herron’s writing is truly fantastic and he has such a gift of observation. Even though I’m new to these characters, I immediately felt like I knew them. This book reveals things that have happened in the past. It doesn’t spoil them; it just makes me want to find out what happened – what is it that made some of these people like this? Especially Shirley. I loved Shirley. Mick Herron is so good at combining tragedy and comedy, showing how closely the two can be linked and how this pulls emotions from us. I now have the first four books and I can’t wait for the time to read them. I love spy novels and so it’s great to find a new series, which definitely gives the genre an original twist, to enjoy and follow.

I went to a book event at Waterstones in Oxford last week in which Andrew Taylor (another favourite author of mine) was interviewed by Mick Herron. It was a wonderful event and it was such a pleasure to meet Mick (on the right below) and tell him how hard I’d fallen for his brilliant books and characters.

Andrew Taylor and Mick Herron