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IMG_0042So, let’s start off with another holiday read which turned out to be a fabulous book, and another one that made me cry (doesn’t seem to be too difficult these days, perhaps its my age). Code Name Verity tells the story of Verity (as in her alias, I can’t remember exactly when in the book we find out her real name) who is an SOE operative behind enemy lines in occupied France during WWII.

The story is told in two parts, two different views of the same events which I thought worked really, really well here. We start with Verity who has been captured and is being tortured by the Gestapo; in her cell she thinks back over how she met Maddie, an unlikely friendship as Verity (we find out) is from a wealthy Scottish aristocratic family and Maddie is a working class girl from Manchester obsessed with machines, especially planes. We learn how their friendship develops, how they become involved in the war effort and how Verity ended up where she is. We then switch to the other viewpoint, about which I won’t give too much away, which fills in some of the gaps in Verity’s story and brings the whole thing to a conclusion, which is where my middle-aged weeping comes in.

This is another young adult novel, so again clear, direct, simple language but not flinching away from the necessarily unpleasant aspects of the story. One of the strongest themes is that of female friendship; Verity and Maddie really mean a lot to each other and their relationship was entirely convincing. And it makes clear the sacrifices a number of women made, leaving their families to carry out dangerous work with no guarantee of return. This is an excellent novel and it will hopefully win a number of the awards for which it has been nominated. I thought it was stunning.

ScanOne of the things I enjoy a great deal is reading the author’s notes for this type of novel, not so much the acknowledgements to friends and colleagues who have in some way assisted (though they can also be quite fun), but more the research details and in particular any books consulted. Which is how I came to realise that I already had one of the biographies mentioned – A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE; it was inevitable that after reading such a strong novel I would want to dive into the background.

Vera Atkins was a key figure in the SOE French Section and prepared many of the female agents who were amongst more than four hundred who were sent behind enemy lines. A large number of these failed to come back, and the book follows Vera as she attempts to find out what happened to them, particularly the twelve young women for whom she felt responsible. It explains how the French Section worked during the war, the status of the female agents which meant that if captured they would not be protected by the Geneva Convention, and the struggle Vera had to get permission to carry out her search. It also lays bare just how compromised the SOE operation in France actually was, betrayed to the Gestapo at an early stage, with agents being caught almost as soon as they parachuted onto French soil. One of the more sobering facts is that the lifespan of a radio operator in France was roughly six weeks.

Vera does find out what happened to all of her agents, and it is a really harrowing story of bravery in the face of genuinely wicked cruelty and brutality as her quest for information brings her face to face with the atrocities committed in Natzweller, Ravensbruck and Dachau.

It is also the fascinating story of Vera herself and the secrets she kept; suffice to say she wasn’t exactly what she appeared, and the author’s investigation into Vera’s past is equally fascinating. Again, a book well worth reading to get a sense of a life totally dominated by wartime events.

PreviewFile.jpg.ashxAround the same time I was reading these two an interesting series was being broadcast on TV which was also about the impact of wartime events on post-war lives. The Bletchley Circle is the story of four friends who had worked as code-breakers during the war and use their skills to investigate and unmask a serial killer through patterns that only they seem able to see. The compulsion that causes the murderer to kill in the way he does points out again the impact of wartime on the minds of those who experienced it (though actually his character is rather ambivalent, besides being a murderous psychopath of course) but the thing that stuck out for me was the four friends themselves, who had carried out important work that they couldn’t discuss even with their families, and the way their lives seemed so dull in the aftermath that they would put themselves in such danger to catch a killer.

And just finally, a few weeks ago a memorial was erected in London to one of Vera’s agents, Nora Inayat Khan, who met one of the most brutal of ends with genuine bravery. One of those periods in history we mustn’t forget.

blackbutterflyaluciferbox52839_fSo here we have the third of the Lucifer Box novels by Mark Gatiss. Black Butterfly is set in the early 1950s with a new Queen on the British Throne and changes afoot in HM Secret Service. Lucifer is an old man now and in the throes of passing on the baton to a new generation when the uncharacteristic suicide of an old friend and several other mysterious deaths send him back out into the field to foil another dastardly plot.

This is quite consciously a spoof of James Bond type of thriller – beautiful women, exotic locations, arch humour, evil genius, convoluted plot, the world saved just in the nick of time – and for that reason I think it’s the least successful of the three books.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed watching the plot come to fruition and it was interesting to see Box try to deal with the effects of old age on a  man in his profession, but there was something too familiar about it. I suspect the problem is that James Bond has been parodied so many times (and often within its own film franchise) that I didn’t find much that was actually that new here.

It’s a shame as I really like Gatiss and I wanted to get more out of this than I actually did; I was just a wee bit disappointed that it didn’t grab me.

declareI actually finished reading Declare last weekend, but a mixture of workload and being severely under the weather for the past three days (can’t decide if  it’s a new cold or if I just haven’t entirely got rid of the one I had before Christmas and it’s just come back to remind me how much it cares) meant that I haven’t been out from under enough to consider posting. But I’m beginning to feel a little bit better and may have revived sufficient brain cells to do this some justice. Because I really, really enjoyed this novel.

Bit of background; the Book God is a Powers fan and has been encouraging me to try his stuff, but the only thing I’ve read is The Anubis Gates which was good but didn’t have me rushing to the bookshelves to locate any more. Every time I say to the BG that I’m looking for something to read, he says “why not try Declare?” but I’ve usually gone off and found something else. The thing that  made me change my mind this time was reading The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross – more of that later.

Declare brings together espionage and the supernatural; that’s clear from the beginning. It tells the story of Andrew Hale, recruited by the British Secret Service at the age of seven, undercover in France during the Second World War and in Berlin and the Middle East afterwards, and his connection with Kim Philby and an unfinished operation code-named Declare.

I’m not going to say anything more about the plot; the pleasure of this book is how convincing it is about the world it operates in, of spies and resistance movements and the use of the supernatural by countries for their own ends. It’s very creepy in places, incredibly atmospheric, and Powers has taken what we know about Philby and put an unusual interpretation on the facts. It’s worth reading the author’s afterword.

As for Stross, well he became aware of Declare when writing The Atrocity Archives and although superficially they have common themes, they really are quite different. I think Stross himself said that if he was writing like Len Deighton, then Powers was John le Carre.

I can really recommend this.

thedevilinamberalucifer47509_fWhere to start with The Devil in Amber? This is the second Mark Gatiss novel to feature Lucifer Box – artist; spy/secret agent; a man with an eye for both men and women; a man who lives life to the full, shall we say.

We first met him in The Vesuvius Club which was set in the Edwardian period; we are now in the 1920s, with Fascism rising and the effects of the Great War still being felt. Lucifer is keeping an eye on Olympus Mons and his Amber Shirts, and while doing so is framed for murder and has to escape to Britain, foil the dastardly plot, save the girl and his own reputation.

This is great fun; I love Mark Gatiss (the twenty-seventh most dangerous man in Islington apparently) who has written for (and appeared in) Dr Who  – which immediately gives him extra points – but he also wrote and acted in a three-part ghost story on the BBC over Christmas (called Crooked House and I hope it’s going to come out on DVD soon as it was really very good).

This novel is a cross between a classic spy thriller and Denis Wheatley (yes, there are Satanists and mysterious castles and young women in peril and megalomaniacs trying to take over the world) but it’s also really amusing; I love the names, especially Lucifer’s sister Pandora Box. An enjoyable read for a dull and cold January, and I’ve just got a hold of the third Lucifer Box adventure, which looks a little bit more James Bond-ish…..

atrocityarchivescharlesst46337_fIt’s always exciting when you find a new author that you think you are really going to enjoy, and extremely gratifying when you turn out to be right, as I have been with Charles Stross. I have read about him for a long time, and been intrigued by reviews of his books, but until now haven’t tried any of his works. And in looking for something different after my failure with Emperor, I decided to throw myself into The Atrocity Archives and I’m so glad I did because it is exactly what I needed!

In the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book Stross refers to three authors who made it possible for him to write the book – HP Lovecraft, Neal Stephenson and Len Deighton, which is a really interesting mix when you stop to think about it. The first two have been referred to on this blog more than once (I think – they are both favourites) and Deighton I know mostly through Michael Caine playing Harry Palmer in the movies but don’t think I have ever read.

So as you may have gleaned this is about spies and codes and Nameless Old Ones as seen through the eyes of Bob Howard who has been conscripted into the organisation known as The Laundry and about his experiences as a field agent. It is almost impossible to explain the plot without giving anything away but it is really enjoyable and if you are a civil servant you will recognise some of the worst traits of government bureaucracy (although obviously exaggerated – I don’t remember any zombie doormen, but you never know, I just might not have been looking in the right places). It appeals to the X-Files-and-Fringe-loving part of me, the bit that finds gibbous and rugose perfectly acceptable adjectives, and accepts whole-heartedly that there are lots of secret basements all over the place harbouring information it is better for us not to know about.

I really, really, enjoyed this and am already hunting out more of his work. And don’t skip the afterword – really interesting stuff there too.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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