Book Review: The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

The American Agent
A Maisie Dobbs Novel #15
Jacqueline Winspear
Harper, March 2019
ISBN 978-0-06-243666-5
Hardcover

In this latest novel by Jacqueline Winspear set in London during the Second World War, her protagonist Maisie Dobbs, an investigator and psychologist, is asked by a long time friend Robert MacFarlane, who works in the Secret Service, to look into the murder of an American woman, Catherine Saxon. Catherine had been working as a reporter, intent on letting the American people read first hand about the horrific devastation and deaths caused by the German bombers.

The British authorities are keeping Catherine Saxon’s death under wraps, and are hoping Maisie with the help of Mark Scott, an American Agent she has worked with before, to find the murderer. Maisie had in fact met Catherine when she’d accompanied Maisie and her best friend Priscilla Partridge a few nights previously, as they’d worked their shift as volunteer ambulance attendants.

Over a period of weeks Maisie interviews the other occupants residing in the boarding house where Catherine lived and where her body was found. It’s a slow process and amid the nightly turmoil of bombings, progress is slow. Maisie also has other responsibilities, not the least being the welfare of a young child Anna, an evacuee she’s grown to love. Anna is meantime in the countryside being looked after by Maisie’s father and stepmother. But Maisie is anxious about the upcoming hearing with regard to her adoption of young Anna.

I’ve been reading the Maisie Dobbs novels since the first came out in 2003 and which won numerous awards. Maisie is a strong woman, she’s had to be, considering all she has gone through. She’s honourable, steadfast and caring, and has a unique way of investigating and uncovering the truth.

The background of the Blitz, as it was referred to, actually took place from November 1940 to May 1941 and the sense of danger and the relentless bombardment from the German Luftwaffe and their fighters makes for a tension filled story. It’s a difficult case and Maisie faces a number of challenges in her quest to uncover the killer.

While this book is the latest in a series, it isn’t vital that you read the previous books. But if you want to get to know Maisie Dobbs and her friends and family a little better…. then search them out.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, May 2019.

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Book Review: The Storm Over Paris by William Ian Grubman

The Storm Over Paris
William Ian Grubman
Dupapier Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-732-61000-2
Trade paperback

A prologue and an epilogue that take place in 2000 in New York City bookends what is an exciting addition to the literature of the Holocaust. The rest of the story is set in Paris, beginning in April of 1942 where the Rothstein family has run a prestigious art gallery for several generations. They’ve handled the Rembrandts, the DaVincis, the Caravaggios. The very best of which the invading Nazis are looting for their own.

Mori Rothstein’s life, and that of his family are in jeopardy because they are Jewish. The only thing saving them, for a while at least, is because Hermann Goering is collecting (stealing) the most precious paintings for Hitler’s art museum and he needs Mori’s expertise. For a time, Mori’s connections and knowledge will keep him and his family alive, but time is running out. He and his sons must be not only brave, but clever if they are to save any of the paintings as well as their lives.

The writing is excellent, the setting of 1942 Paris well depicted, and as the pacing picks up to an exciting conclusion, the tension swells exponentially. The characters are well-fleshed out, including those you are sure to hate. A fascinating read for those who like historical adventure set in that time and under those circumstances.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, February 2019.
https://carolcriggercom.sitelio.me/
Author of Five Days, Five Dead, Hereafter and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Solemn Graves by James R. Benn

Solemn Graves
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #13
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2018
ISBN: 978-1-6169-5849-7
Hardcover

The adventures of Billy Boyle during World War II bring him close to the front lines shortly after the D-Day invasion of Normandy to investigate a suspicious murder of a communications major in a farmhouse. He arrives with Big Mike at the house which was occupied by a Nazi military police group and now serves as headquarters for an American battalion.

The investigation is hampered by the existence of a ghost army nearby operated by actors and technicians who perform theatrical stunts to mislead the German forces.  Shrouded in secrecy, it makes Billy’s task more difficult.  And, of course, the various potential witnesses have their own agenda, withholding information vital to Billy’s solving the case. As a result, Billy dives into the biggest operation of the invasion forces, seeking to interview a Nazi officer behind German lines.

Like all the previous novels in this wonderful series, the descriptions of the battles and army operations are real and gripping. The Billy Boyle series only gets better with each new book.   Each has been highly recommended, and Solemn Graves joins that list.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2018.

Book Review: The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason

The Shadow Killer
The Flovent and Thorson Thrillers, Book 2
Arnaldur Indridason
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Minotaur Books, May 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-12404-3
Hardcover

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, was occupied by British troops even if that country was neutral in World War II, and in the months before Pearl Harbor, U.S. Troops relieved the Tommies [as they were called] so they could return home and face the possible Nazi invasion.  Iceland, of course, was a prominent way station for naval shipping across the Atlantic, with U-boat activity quite active.  In the midst of this activity, a man is found murdered, shot in the head by a weapon commonly used by American troops.

The investigation is undertaken by Flovent, the only detective with the Icelandic CID.  He enlists the help of a U.S. military policeman by the name of Thorston.  Together they center their attention on a family of German extraction, a paralyzed doctor, his son and his brother-in-law, the headmaster of a school, as well as the doctor’s brother who lives in Germany.  The victim remains unidentified, while initially believed to be the resident of the apartment, when it turns out he was a boyhood friend of the resident, the doctor’s son, who is in hiding and becomes the focus of a hunt.

Various subplots complicate the story as Flovent and Thorston delve into possible leads, including any possible role of U.S. Intelligence and a possible visit to the island by Winston Churchill. The sharp prose and excellent translation enhance this second novel in the series.  Mr. Indridason continues to provide us with top-notch thrillers, and we look forward to his next effort.

The novel is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2018.

Book Reviews: Untwine by Edwidge Danticat and Courage and Defiance by Deborah Hopkinson

Untwine
Edwidge Danticat
Scholastic Press, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-42303-8
Hardcover

Preamble be damned, Untwine begins in the present and with purpose. Mum and Dad aren’t getting along. Identical teen-aged twin girls are tight, but right now, each is feeling a bit out of sorts. Everyone in the family car, each in a funk. And they are running late. Suddenly–another vehicle slams into them. The tightly knit family is shattered; metaphorically and then, quite literally.

Realistic fiction with a fresh focus features a situation that anyone can relate to. Rather than opening with an obligatory, typical-teen-turning-point type of event, it’s a regular day and a random accident. With all the ripple effects. Giselle relays events to the reader, moving both backward and forward, but in a fluid kind of way—painting the picture piece by piece.

Ms. Danticat’s story struck me as unique in a couple of ways. First, I felt a solid sense of loss for someone I’ve never known. Not sadness, sympathy or empathy; but an actual aching emptiness, and all for a character the author doesn’t even introduce. Second, subtle nuances–almost behind-the-scenes actions, that demonstrate strength and support of extended family I found to be both impressive and inspiring.

Mum and Dad, each with a sibling, immigrated from Haiti to the U.S. and they made their home in Miami. The accident brings the twins’ maternal aunt, as well as their father’s brother, to the hospital and straight to Giselle’s bedside. When Giselle is released from the hospital, she has rigid, ridiculous rules to follow, but they are for real. If she wants her brain to heal, that means no screens whatsoever, no reading, and no writing. Everyone else has their own injuries, so grand-parents come from Haiti to help out.

A sad story, with subtle silver linings, is simply the best.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2018.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Courage & Defiance:
Stories of Spies, Saboteurs and Survivors in World War II Denmark
Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic Press, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-59220-8
Hardcover

In April of 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and the quiet, common thread running through the Danish people was plucked. If ever there was a more resilient, resolved and remarkably sympathetic collection of human beings, they are unknown to me. Ms. Hopkinson honestly portrays the dangers of dismal, every-day-life under occupation as well as the cruelty and despair of concentration camps, simultaneously displaying the intuitive empathy and bravery of the Danes.

What strikes me the most is that each person has an individual ‘line he will cross’ while still doing his level best to resist, if not fight, against the gruesome German goals. That is, until learning of Hitler’s plan to round up and relocate Danish Jews to concentration camps. The unspoken, unanimous decision to prevent this was almost palpable as plans for moving Jewish Danes to Sweden were formed.

I do not have the ability to aptly convey the reasons that I will be highly recommending this non-fiction nugget, so I’ll just leave you with this: reading Courage and Defiance reminds me of the quote that Mr. Rogers would share from his childhood. When he would see scary things in the news, his mother advised, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.

Book Review: The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason

The Shadow District
The Flovent and Thorson Thrillers #1
Arnaldur Indridason
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Minotaur Books, November 2017
ISBN:  978-1-250-12402-9
Hardcover

From the publisher:  In the debut of a new series from international mystery giant Indridason, the murder of a woman in Reykjavik during WWII becomes a piece in the puzzle of a contemporary killing.  A retired detective named Konrad remembers the earlier murder from his childhood, and is surprised when, assisting in the case of a 90-year-old man who was smothered in his bed, he comes across clippings that the old man kept of the murder.  It happened in ‘the shadow district,’ a rough neighborhood bordered by the National Theatre where Konrad grew up. But why would someone be interested in that crime now?  Alternating between Konrad’s unofficial investigation and the original wartime police inquiry, The Shadow District depicts the two investigations, separated by decades, discovering that two girls had been attacked in oddly similar circumstances.  Did the police arrest the wrong man all those years ago?  How are these cases linked across the decades?  And who is the old man?  A deeply compassionate story of old crimes and their consequences.

And that this surely is.  This newest standalone from Mr. Indridason will resonate with his many readers, as it did with this reviewer.

The contemporary murder is that of a young woman of about twenty, the body discovered by a local Icelandic woman and her lover, found in a box in a doorway of that same National Theatre in the Shadow District.  The investigation is headed by Konrad and Marta, a young woman with whom he had worked in the CID, and they immediately realize the similarities between this murder and the wartime killing, the two victims and the circumstances of their murders being so similar.  The ensuing tale is riveting, in this author’s distinctive style, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2017.

Book Review: Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

Almost Autumn
Marianne Kaurin
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-88965-0
Hardcover

The world we live in today is so ‘moment-to-moment’ in terms of information, we feel saturated and overwhelmed when evil things happen. It was markedly different for fifteen year old Ilse Stern, a Norwegian Jew. When the Nazis occupied her country in 1942, one of the first things they did was force everyone to turn in their wireless receivers (radios), effectively shutting off the most available information flow.

Ilse lives in a cramped fourth floor apartment with her parents and two sisters. Sonja is older and over-responsible, trying to keep the household running as well as do what she can to help her father keep his tailor shop afloat. Miriam, age five, is quiet and loves to draw pictures with her trademark sun featured in each. Mother is somewhat dour and constantly finds fault with Ilse, who’s a dreamer and avid reader with a big crush on teen neighbor Hermann Rod.

The Nazi occupiers’ squeeze on Jewish citizens begins gradually with a requirement that they have new registration papers stamped with a red J. Overly frequent requirements that Jewish men report to authorities coincides with a spike in verbal attacks and defacing of property. It becomes so bad, Mr. Stern leaves an hour early to remove the words written on his shop windows so Ilse and Sonja won’t see them when they arrive to help out.

Meanwhile, Hermann has gotten involved in the resistance, but must cover this activity by pretending he’s apprenticing to a painter across town. His involvement causes him to stand Ilse up for their first date, a night at the local cinema. For the next month, neither quite knows how to break the chill that follows this.

At the same time as the two teens are dancing around their feelings for each other, the campaign of terror has been ramped up by the occupation forces and in short order, the tailor shop is forced to close, all savings accounts and safe deposit boxes owned by Jewish citizens are ordered closed and all adult Jewish males are arrested and taken to a secret location.

Ilse and Hermann run off for a day of skiing and reconciliation. While gone, her family is taken into custody as are most other Jewish citizens. After a horrific sea voyage and a frigid train ride, with all packed tighter than cattle, they end up at Aushwitz. The description of what happened during these trips, as well as their reception at the prison camp, are low key, but still leave the reader feeling chilled.

If you want to learn what happened to Ilse, read the book. It’s an excellently understated story of how a large number of innocent human beings were terrified before being carted off to be executed simply because of their ethnicity. We need books like this to remind those who have forgotten and make aware those who never knew. Highly suggested for any school or public library collection.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, November 2017.