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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

I need a break. Not from school or work or even the large orange cat determined to share my lap with the laptop. (Please move, Peach). No, I need a break from the willful ignorance and hypocrisy floating this way from Tallahassee, where the Florida Legislature is being lobbied by a conservative group that wants to ban certain books from public school readers. Again. Y’know, the books they find objectionable, ones by Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt, Anthony Burgess, Kate Chopin, among others. Yes, that’s the stench of censorship wafting across the Sunshine State. Where oh where are the orange blossoms of yesteryear? Like I said, I need a break, so I’m not going into my standard rant. Instead, I’m going to read some lovely books of my own choosing. I suggest you do the same, right after you read this story from the Tampa Bay Times, “Bills may foster bans on books.”  http://tinyurl.com/yypzeapk

There’s nothing like a good Gothic to make me forget my woes. An island castle, a missing bride, a hidden passage, a rare butterfly. It’s the latter that lures intrepid lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell to Cornwall in Deanna Raybourn’s witty A Dangerous Collaboration (Penguin Berkley, digital galley). She’s posing as the fiance of Tiberious, Viscount Templeton-Vane, who just happens to be the brother of Veronica’s fellow adventurer, Stoker. Her feelings for the dashing Stoker are as deliciously complicated as the secrets awaiting the three of them on St. Maddern’s Isle, where the beautiful Rosamund disappeared on her wedding day three years ago. Maybe a seance will reveal her whereabouts.

In The Stranger Diaries (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Elly Griffiths takes a break from her Ruth Galloway series to craft a modern Gothic that includes a classic ghost story. English teacher Clare Cassidy’s work on a biography of Victorian writer R.M. Holland is interrupted by the violent deaths of several of her colleagues in ways suggested by Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger.” If that’s not weird enough, Clare finds someone has been leaving her messages in her diary. Add her teenage daughter’s new circle of friends, and you’ve got a chilly puzzle enhanced by excerpts from Holland’s horror tale.

leonAlthough Venetians love to gossip, Commissario Guido Brunetti usually pays no attention to the constant chatter. But in Donna Leon’s absorbing Unto Us a Son Is Given (Grove Atlantic. digital galley), Brunetti’s wealthy father-in-law asks him to investigate when he hears that his elderly art dealer friend Gonzalo plans to adopt a younger man as his sole heir. Gonzalo has said it’s his business and to stay out of it, but then the old man dies suddenly and a visiting friend organizing a memorial service is murdered in a Venetian hotel room. As usual, the procedural atmospherics complement Brunetti’s reflections on human nature, doubt and justice.

Although the title of Alice Quinn’s rousing historical novel The Huntress (Morrow, digital galley) refers to a ruthless Nazi war criminal, it also applies to the fascinating Nina Markova, who survived her encounter with the Huntress in war-torn Poland and is now bent on revenge. After the war, she is joined in her search by British war correspondent Ian and his sidekick, former American soldier Tony, who are tracking Nazis wanted for war crimes. Eventually, their stories will intersect with aspiring photographer Jordan McBride, who lives in Boston with her Austrian stepmother. The story moves back and forth between time periods and continents, but it’s Nina who kept me flipping pages. Her fierceness owes much to her childhood in the wilds of Siberia, which she uses to her advantage to learn to fly and then talk her way into the infamous regiment of female Russian bomber pilots known as “the Night Witches.” Her flying exploits, and those of her comrades, are terrifying and adrenaline-fueled, and they scar her forever. As in her last best-seller The Alice Network, Quinn has done her research, and facts bolster her fiction.

Flashback to February when I read several engrossing family dramas. In Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics (Morrow, digital galley), the four Skinner siblings are all marked by the three-year interval they refer to as “the Pause.” It occurs when they are children and their father suddenly dies and their mother abdicates her role as parent because of mental illness. At just 11, Renee assumes most of the burden of caring for Caroline, Joe and Fiona, who narrates the story from advanced old age. Still, demons follow them into adulthood, where they face another tragedy that illuminates family ties. Anissa Gray’s affecting first novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Penguin/Berkley, digital galley), is told through the alternating voices of the three Butler sisters. When pillars of the community Althea and her husband Proctor go on trial for scamming a local charity, middle sister Viola returns from Chicago to help younger sister Lillian care for Althea’s troubled twin teenagers, Kim and Baby Vi. But these strong sisters, whose backstories artfully unfold, also need to learn to care for themselves. Right after I read Nickolas Butler’s Little Faith (HarperCollins, digital galley), I read a newspaper story about parents arrested for withholding medical treatment from their sick child because of religious reasons. In Butler’s book, which gracefully chronicles one year in the life of a rural Wisconsin family, grandparents Lyle and Peg become concerned when their adopted daughter Shiloh becomes involved with a charismatic evangelist who convinces her that her five-year-old son Isaac is a budding faith healer. There’s further conflict when Isaac is diagnosed with diabetes, and Shiloh chooses prayer over medicine. The ensuing drama plays out thoughtfully, unlike a TV medical show that wraps up everything in an hour episode.

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I spy a new novel by Kate Atkinson — Transcription (Little Brown, digital galley). Even if her name wasn’t on the cover, the tricksy writing style and off-center characters are so Atkinsonian. The setting — World War II London and after — is also familiar from Life After Life and A God in Ruins. But mostly it’s the sly subversion of genre expectations and unexpected plotting, as in the Jackson Brodie crime novels (Case Histories, etc.). Atkinson has her own GPS and trusts us to follow her lead; it’s so like her to start at the end. In 1981 London, a 60something woman is struck by a car while crossing the street, closing her eyes  as she murmurs, “This England.”

The story then neatly shuttles back and forth between 1950, when Juliet Armstrong is working as a BBC radio producer, and 1940, when she is an 18-year-old MI5 secretary transcribing audio recordings of German sympathizers who think they are talking to an undercover Gestapo agent. Actually, owlish Mr. Toby — picture Alan Guinness as George Smiley — works for MI5, which is why it’s so strange in 1950 that he denies knowing Juliet when she hails him in the park. Juliet begins noticing other oddities at the BBC that appear connected to her past. In addition to her transcription work in Dolphin Square during the war, she also spied on a society matron, learning undercover tradecraft and that “actions have consequences.”

Still, Atkinson is as devious as any secret agent, and nothing, then and now, is quite what it seems. Her touch is light, ironic, as she unfolds Juliet’s transformation from a naive teen with a crush on her gay boss to a seasoned pro who allows her flat to be used as a safe house after the war. As always, the historical aspects are well-researched — be sure to read the afterword — and if Juliet remains something of an enigma, isn’t that in the way of spies, hiding true identities, blending in? I read Transcription straight through, caught my breath, shook my head, then started again at the beginning disguised as the end.

Unsheltered (HarperCollins, digital galley) is the perfect title for Barbara Kingsolver’s timely and involving new novel, a tale of two families living in uncertain times and on the same corner a century and half apart. In 2016, the brick house at the corner of Plum and Vine in the New Jersey town of Vineland is falling apart. Willa Knox, an out-of-work magazine journalist, and her college professor husband, Iano Tavoularis, who lost his tenured job when his college closed, have moved into the inherited house with their grown daughter Tig and Iano’s ailing father Nick. It’s Willa who gets the bad news about the leaking roof and faulty foundation while Iano’s at his new job as an adjunct teacher at a nearby college. Not long after, there’s more bad news when son Zeke and his infant son must also move in the deteriorating structure. Hoping that the house has some historic significance and would qualify for a grant for necessary repairs, Willa begins researching its history in between changing diapers and taking cantankerous Nick to the doctor.

In the 1870s, the house on the corner is falling apart, too, because of mistakes made during construction. Science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home with his new wife, her younger sister and his widowed, social-climbing mother-in-law who inherited the house from her family. Vineland was designed as a utopian community, but it’s really a company town for its bullying founder. Greenwood butts heads with him and the sanctimonious head of the school over the teaching of evolution and his championing of Charles Darwin, a correspondent of his brilliant neighbor Mary Treat (a real-life scientist). Greenwood’s friendship with Mary and a maverick newspaper editor also threatens his marriage and standing in the community. So not much good news there.

Still, Kingsolver is such a warm and witty writer that her pointed social commentary on crumbling dreams doesn’t get in the way of her very human story. Idealistic Tig is hiding a secret heartbreak, and the family is tender with profanity-spouting Nick, even when he tunes the radio to right-wing diatribes. Both families are vulnerable to the tides of change, “unsheltered” in the world. At least, Kingsolver leaves room for hope.

Most people who talk of skeletons in family trees are speaking metaphorically. But there’s an actual skeleton in the old wych elm tree at the Hennessey family home in Dublin. Who is it? How long has it been there? And what does it have to do with Toby, the nice-guy narrator of Tana French’s intricate and beguiling new stand-alone, The Witch Elm (Viking, review copy)?

That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones. Having written six layered police procedurals in the Dublin Murder Squad series, French now switches the perspective from police to crime victim.

I reviewed The Witch Elm for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/y7k7ttbk 

 

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A couple weeks ago I noted on Facebook that I was temporarily abandoning the palace intrigue of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for Robert Harris’ new novel Munich (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). There I was met on the first page with this: “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful. . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hands on the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

It’s September of 1938, and Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. We know that he was dissuaded by British PM Neville Chamberlain at a last-minute meeting in Munich calling “for peace in our time.” Although this policy of appeasement didn’t sit well with many and only delayed World War II by not even a year, history acknowledges that the intervening months gave the Allies the crucial time to prepare for war. Knowing that Munich almost didn’t happen and the talks threatened to fall apart moment to moment doesn’t detract from Harris’ sleek and suspenseful narrative. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann were friends together at Oxford. Now, Hugh is an aide with the British foreign office, and Paul, a German nationalist, is one of the civil servants and military officers plotting Hitler’s demise in Berlin. The two need to meet long enough in Munich for Paul to pass a message to British intelligence, but he is being watched by Hitler’s henchmen. Harris sustains the tension throughout, and his fictional characters have the solidity of the historical figures who come to life in the fast-moving pages.  A thriller of diplomacy and espionage, Munich’s a book for our times.

Seen from above, a garden maze is a miracle of symmetry and relatively easy to traverse. But when you’re in the maze, navigating the intricate loops proves more difficult. Oh, for a map! Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a miracle of symmetry from any perspective, an artfully constructed historical novel in which five stories are superimposed, one on top the other through time, in Newport, R.I. We begin in 2011, with a poor but handsome tennis pro romancing several women, one an heiress with cerebral palsy. In 1896, a closeted man-about-town woos a wealthy widow who owns the Windermere estate. Thirty years earlier, a young Henry James aspires to be a writer by observing Newport society. During the American Revolution, a manipulative British soldier plots to seduce the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. And in 1692, a young Quaker woman feels she must marry after her father is lost at sea.

Smith nimbly braids these distinct narratives loosely at first, then tighter as the book progresses. Similar themes of race and class, love and money emerge and then converge. Past is prism and palimpsest. A familiarity with Henry James — Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress — deepens appreciation, but there’s nothing fusty or longwinded about The Maze at Windermere. Each character is true to his or her time and speaks accordingly. Still, it is the young James who seems to sum up their thoughts when he writes, “We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.” I got lost in The Maze at Windermere and loved every page.

It’s been a good month for historical novels. One of my other favorites is Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Harper, review) which I reviewed for the Minneapolis StarTribune. (https://tinyurl.com/yc4mmrze). It’s the sprawling saga of a walled English estate depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th. In Fools and Mortals (Harper, digital galley), Bernard Cornwell takes a break from the Saxons and turns to Shakespeare, expertly evoking Elizabethan times. His adventure tale focuses on Shakespeare’s handsome younger brother Richard, an actor in Will’s troupe who is charged with retrieving the original script of A Midsummer’s Night Dream after it is stolen by a rival theatrical company. Enter complications pursued by hi-jinks. Seriously, it’s quite good. Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing (Atria, library hardcover)  pays homage to Agatha Christie as young Englishwoman Lily Shepherd, a former housemaid, books passage to Australia in the summer of 1939. There’s shipboard romance and intrigue as Lily’s fellow travelers include an amiable brother and sister with health issues, a Jewish schoolteacher who has fled her home in Vienna, a mysterious and wealthy American couple, an embittered spinster, a bullying bigot, a nervous mother and her teenage daughter, and a naive housemaid.  Lauren Willig’s a pro at romantic suspense, and sets her entertaining The English Wife (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in Gilded Age New York. Janie Van Duyvil uncovers family secrets when her older brother Bayard is murdered at a fancy dress ball and his English wife Annabelle disappears. A parallel narrative introduces readers to the music halls of London and a beautiful singer who calls herself George. Janie’s a shy, somewhat tiresome character in the beginning, but she finds confidence (and love) when a tabloid reporter joins her in a quest for answers.

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Infamous Cambridge spy Guy Burgess had a cameo earlier this year in Joseph Kanon’s Cold War novel Defectors, but he practically steals the show in John Lawton’s excellent new Inspector Troy tale, Friends and Traitors (Grove/Atlantic, library e-book). It’s the eighth book in the crime series where history regularly meets mystery as Scotland Yard’s Frederick Troy dodges bombs in World War II London (Black Out), or protects Khruschev on a 1956 UK visit (Old Flames), or is tangled in the political scandals of the  early ’60s (A Little White Death).

In this entry, Lawton plays the long game, beginning with police cadet Troy first meeting Burgess at a family dinner in 1935. Both his Russian emigre/press baron father and his older brother warn him that the charming Burgess is bad news, “queer as a coot,” a notorious gossip, a possible spy. Still, Troy is intrigued by Burgess, who keeps showing up at various venues and times before, during and after the war. Then in 1951, Burgess and Donald MacLean defect to the Soviet Union, and their betrayal, along with that of Kim Philby, upends the British intelligence community for years. And that’s still the case in 1958 when a sad and pathetic Burgess approaches Troy during a family trip to Europe and says he wants to return to England. The ensuing imbroglio in Vienna results in the shooting of an MI5 agent, and Troy must defend himself against charges of murder and treason. All of this plays out in a string of atmospheric set pieces and charged exchanges of dialogue among the well-drawn cast of friends, family, lovers and spies.

The Troy books can be read out of order as stand-alone thrillers, but you run the risk of finding out the fate of characters and cases featured in other stories. Sudden death and reversals of fortune mark Troy’s complicated professional and private life, but that just makes the series all the more rewarding.

In 1939 Prague, with the Nazis on the doorstep, a woman named Otylie hopes to save her most treasured possession — an inherited musical manuscript of unknown authorship — by tearing it into three pieces. One movement of the sonata goes to her best friend Irena, the second goes to her husband in the Resistance, and the third she keeps for herself as she flees the country. Some 60 years later, Meta, a young musicologist who trained as a concert pianist, chances on one of the sonata’s movements and sets out to find the missing pieces and reunite them with their rightful owner. She also must prove the manuscript’s authenticity and perhaps discover who authored the haunting composition.  Bach? Beethoven? Maybe Mozart or Salieri?

Bradford Morrow details Meta’s daunting quest in his new historical novel The Prague Sonata (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), and I do mean details.  The premise is fascinating, the characters interesting, the plot hopscotches in time and place — Prague, London, New York, Nebraska. But the pace is uneven, the transitions often jarring, and the narrative so weighted with detail that it tested my will to read on. Students of music and history may well be enthralled, and I was at times because Morrow is an accomplished storyteller.  (I love Trinity Fields, thought The Forgers was clever and entertaining). But, at least in this case, too much of a good thing was still too much.

Nicola Upson’s detective series featuring real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey just keeps getting better as she artfully mixes history and fiction. Fear in the Sunlight played out against the set of an Alfred Hitchcock film, while London Rain‘s backdrop was the 1937 coronation of King George VI. In the seventh book, Nine Lessons (Crooked Lane Books, digital galley), Upson draws on the real-life crimes of the Cambridge Rapist, although she has him terrorizing women in 1937 Cambridge. Josephine is house-sitting for her lover, actress Marta Hallard, who is away on business. The tension and unease in town and at the colleges is palpable as the attacks on women escalate to include murder.

At the same time, Josephine’s great friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is investigating a gruesome murder in a London graveyard. The trail eventually leads him to Cambridge, a college choir and a long-ago death. What makes this second story especially chilling is the discovery that the London murder is tied to a series of ghost stories by M.R. James, who taught at Cambridge. The vengeful killer takes cruel delight in replicating disturbing details of James’ spooky tales. Then there’s the big secret that Josephine is keeping from Archie that could profoundly alter their relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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herooffranceMathieu is his nom de guerre, and, like many of Alan Furst’s leading men, he’s something of a loner, a considered risk-taker who hides his intelligence and sophistication behind a quiet demeanor. He’s good at sizing up people, figuring out if they can be trusted. “And I’d better be,” he says, ”because I can only be wrong once.”

Mathieu is the capable leader of a small Resistance cell in A Hero of France (Random House, digital galley), Furst’s excellent new novel of the shadowy world of espionage. In previous books, he has focused mostly on the twilight years leading up to the war, but here it is March of 1941, and German-occupied Paris is dark and under curfew. Mathieu and his cell help rescue downed RAF pilots and crew members, hiding them in safe houses, securing false identity passes, providing disguises and escorting them to safety — perhaps by train through Vichy France and then to Spain, or in the back of a truck to the countryside and coast to await safe passage to England. It is dangerous, heart-stopping work, but these ordinary people — a professor, a nurse, a schoolteacher, a teen with a bicycle, a widow with a bureaucratic friend, a nightclub owner with connections — prove themselves over and over in extraordinary circumstances. But their actions can only go unnoticed for so long. A fatuous Brit wants to run the network from afar, encouraging riskier acts of sabotage. A German police detective is looking for an informer to penetrate the cell. Then there are the soldiers who will trip a man for no reason, and young street thugs playing at extortion.

The narrative is episodic, and Furst splices tense, action-filled scenes with interludes of relative calm. Mathieu begins a love affair with a neighbor, and adopts — or is adopted by — a Belgian shepherd dog. The writing is atmospheric: a crippled plane tries to land in silvery moonlight, lovers share secrets behind blackout curtains, a cafe owner shrugs when asked about the Resistance. “Monsieur, do you know what goes on in the cafes of Paris? Everything. Of course, one may have a glass of wine, a coffee, and something to eat, but there is more. Love affairs begin, love affairs end, swindlers meet their victims, victims meet their lawyers. But, mostly, the cafe is a place for people to go.” Including the heroes of France.

everyonebraveThe London Blitz is a staple of wartime novels and films, offering a dramatic backdrop for stories of courage and romance. The writer Kate Atkinson called it “the dark beating heart” of her novel Life after Life, and the same can be said of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, digital galley). His fierce re-imagining of the Nazi bombs shattering buildings and lives is both wide-screen and close-up. Perhaps because his story is loosely based on the letters and wartime experiences of his grandparents, it feels immediate and personal.

England’s entry into the war in 1939 is a call to arms for Britain’s youth, including 18-year-old debutante Mary North, fresh out a Swiss boarding school. Her notion of a glamorous wartime job is quickly dashed by her assignment to a school whose students are being evacuated to the countryside. But not all children are suitable evacuees, including some who are physically disabled or mentally challenged, along with Zachary, the 10-year-old child of a black American musician. Mary convinces nice-guy Tom Shaw, a school administrator turned down for enlistment, to let her teach a small class of these outsiders. Tom and Mary begin a whirlwind courtship that is threatened both by Mary’s attraction to Tom’s best friend, Alistair Heath, an art restorer before he joined up, and the war itself, which sends Alistair to France and those left behind to air raid shelters. Eventually, Alistair will wind up in Malta, under siege by Axis forces, and Mary and her friend Hilda will volunteer as ambulance drivers.

Cleave’s harrowing descriptions of the homefront and battlefield are leavened by witty dialogue and letters among the characters. He also raises issues of race and class that seem shocking by today’s standards. Mary, Tom, Alistair, Hilda, Zachary — and a host of others — come across as complex and believable. You remember the stubborn  pride of Zachary’s father, the pursed lips of Mary’s mother, the camaraderie between Alistair and a fellow soldier, the resilience of small children, the bravery of those scared to death. You won’t forget Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

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letterwriterNew York City, 1942. The war overseas plays out in the homeland, too. The very day Woodrow Cain, a former North Carolina cop with a tarnished reputation, takes a job with the NYPD, the luxury liner Normandie burns on the waterfront. There’s a black smudge on the skyline, and Cain feels his new life is “as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”

Betrayal, of course, is the very stuff of spy fiction, and Dan Fesperman expertly meshes crime and espionage, corruption and conspiracy in The Letter Writer (Knopf, paperback galley). An unidentified body in the Hudson has Cain stymied until a mysterious man calling himself Danzinger directs him to the city’s “Little Deutschland” of Nazi sympathizers. Danzinger is the title character, an older, well-educated immigrant fluent in five languages, who deals in information while translating and writing letters for his fellow immigrants on the Lower East Side. Over the last few months, he has become increasingly aware of the peril looming overseas as his clients’ secrets darken and more of their letters go unanswered. Cain initially resists Danzinger’s help, but he has trouble trusting anyone in New York, including his colleagues at the 14th precinct and the wealthy, well-connected father of his ex-wife.

The plot is wonderfully complicated, but Fesperman’s crisp scenes reveal one secret after another, both those involving the murder investigation, and personal back stories. Cain’s young daughter arrives in New York, and he begins seeing a woman he meets through Danzinger. The war breeds “creative alliances” — as Danzinger puts it — and offers new opportunities for the Mob. Cain’s encounters with real-life gangsters Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky bristle with tension and suspense. Still, danger rises from an unexpected quarter. Bullets find a target.

Despite the high-wire action near end, The Letter Writer is more like Danzinger, a thoughtful, learned risk-taker holding secrets close. My kind of thriller.

cityofsecretsJerusalem, 1945. Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazi death camps, drives a taxi through the winding streets. He tries to be casual at British checkpoints as he hands over his forged identity papers, supplied, like his name and car, by the Jewish underground. A member of a small cell tied to the Haganah, he is haunted by his past and memories of his lost family, including his beloved wife Katya. By day, he drives tourists from one historic sight to another. At night, he chauffeurs the widow Eva, a fellow cell member, to her assignations. When it rains, he still can smell the blood in the backseat leftover from the unknown man he ferried to the Belgian hospice under cover of darkness.

Stewart O’Nan takes a noir turn in his compact new novel, City of Secrets (Viking, review copy), which is taut as a trip wire. Although narrow in scope, it is morally complex as Brand is further drawn into the Zionist resistance and his missions become more dangerous and potentially violent. Questions are discouraged, paranoia flourishes. Brand learns how to use explosives. He comes under suspicion as an informer. The British crack down on suspected illegal refugees, sending them by bus to detention camps. The militant Irgun retaliate by planning an attack that will have profound consequences for the future of Palestine. Brand wonders if this is any way to live.

O’Nan provides some historical context in an afterwards, but it helps if you’ve heard of the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, or at least have read Leon Uris’ Exodus. But while I’m sure his research was meticulous, the names of the streets aren’t what give the book its authenticity. It’s the way O’Nan gets inside his characters’ heads. In his last novel, West of Sunset, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Songs for the Missing, it was the family of a missing teen, and in Last Night at the Lobster, the workers at a closing chain eatery. Here it is Brand, a survivor who drifts into terrorism, a  man who has lost everything but hope. “He wanted the revolution — like the world — to be innocent, when it had never been.”

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