Book Review: Curtain of Death by W.E.B. Griffith and William Butterworth


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In this 3rd installment of the Clandestine Operation series, James Cronley, the Director of Central Intelligence Europe, has a new problem. One of his WACs—Claudette Colbert, no, not the actress—shoots and kills three would-be kidnappers and wounds a fourth. He now must find out who might want to kidnap someone working for the Central Intelligence group (DCI) all the while trying to fight for the survival of his fledgling agency against a bureaucracy determined to wrest control away from him and into their own agencies.

The plot of this book can be broken down into this simple formula: A woman is almost kidnapped; she wounds one. A U.S. officer is kidnapped. A trade for prisoners is conducted.

What happens in the other 440 pages? Meetings, some subvert and others overt. People get together to talk about what they know about the formation of the DCI, what they know about Cronley’s past, and try to figure out what they should know about the U.S. intelligence machinery post-WWII. There are some meetings where Cronley tries to sort out a plan for dealing with their would-be kidnapper, a plot to overthrow the Nazi ratline called Odessa, and how to get the kidnapped Colonel back from the NKGB.

While this may sound like incredible drudgery, Griffin and Butterworth turn these into tense, page-turning scenes pitting rival agencies against one another against the veil of secrecy in dealing with former Nazis. A few plot holes left me wondering, especially why General Gehen didn’t have a look at their prisoner until the last couple pages—but then again, if he had, the book would have been over at the start.

Burdened with a plot, the book really shines in its interpretations of the power struggles that accompanied the birth of the CIA and how the United States handled both former Nazis and the rise of the KGB.


Review first appeared: Historical Novels Review, Feb. 2017

Book Review: Release Your Inner Roman by Jerry Toner

6122aujy7jl-_sx318_bo1204203200_Struggling with raising your unruly children, getting that raise at work, or finding a balance between happiness and letting luxuries dull your senses? Then follow the advice of Marcus Sidonius Flax (cleverly written by Jerry Toner, The Roman Guide to Slave Management) as he goes through the ways we can learn from the vaunted Roman people on living well. Chapters here include: “Romance like a Roman” and “Climb the Oily Pole.” Flax uses anecdotes from Roman history to explain how everyone can be as successful as the Roman people and what pitfalls to avoid—the theme of the harmfulness of luxuries is constant and may read as repetitious to some readers. It’s a great book for historians, as Toner’s commentary sections after Flax’s stories footnote the sources and briefly explain them. A fun concept and an entertaining way to teach the history of Roman society.


Review first appeared: Historical Novels Review, Feb 2017

Book Review: The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander


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The Sisters of the Holy Redemption. A sweet-sounding place that hides a troubling secret: it is one of the many Magdalen laundries of the Catholic Church, places of abuse, neglect and sadness, all in the name of reforming their charges. Teagan is a typical 1960s Dublin girl: she thinks about clothes, her future and, of course, boys. But a mistakenly innocent encounter with a priest gets her sentenced to the laundry. There she meets an orphaned girl, Lea, who rarely speaks, has a unique gift, and seems resigned to life within the convent. Not long after Teagan’s arrival comes Nora, a feisty dreamer who hails from the tenements and only wants to run away with her boyfriend and live a life away from Dublin.

In the laundry, the girls become close friends. They pledge to look out for one another and escape together. Alexander’s research of the treatment within the convent is clear and true; the girls suffer, and suffer in silence. Their personal narratives are told through wonderful prose, although I would like to have had one main protagonist. Their life inside the convent is as honest to reality as one can get without living it personally. Their individual escapes highlight Catholic Dublin’s attitudes toward these girls, and Nora’s escape is especially troubling, though a little glossed over. What hinders this book from truly shining are the subplots of Lea, a clairvoyant martyr, and the cruel Mother Superior Sister Anne, a masochist with a secret connection with one of the Magdalens.

A well-written look at a wretched history within the Catholic Church.


Review first appeared: Historical Novels Review, Feb. 2017

Book Review: Highland Vixen by Mary Wine


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Helen Grant is a stubborn woman whose will cannot be bent. Or so she thinks. After escaping MacPherson Castle and the equally stubborn war chief Marcus MacPherson, she and her friend Brenda believe they can find shelter in the court of James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. However, he has his own plans for the women. Marcus follows in the hopes of bringing back Helen, but the Earl forces Marcus into a vile marriage with an underage English girl named Katherine—a girl he kidnapped and hoped to use to bind the Highland clans to his will. Helen rescues Marcus by offering to wed him herself. And this sets off a long, awkward romance between the two: Helen debating whether to stay wed to Marcus; Marcus clumsily trying to woo his new bride.

Set against clan struggles and the Earl of Morton’s plans for Scotland, Highland Vixen has enough history to keep it honest and enough passion to excite the senses. Though the second in a series, I didn’t feel any need to have read the first. A fun read.


Review first appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Feb. 2017

Book Review: Above the Reich by David Chaundy- Smart


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Germany, 1918. Lukas Eichel is dropped off at an orphanage by his widowed mother. There, he is set upon by the houseboy and future antagonist, Heinrich Rosenfeld, and Lukas is forced to clean the kitchens. His love for mountaineering is born when he finds trading cards of famous alpinists and their routes, from discarded packages of meat extracts, lying on the kitchen floor. At the orphanage, Lukas and the other boys are cared for by Dr. Franz von Wolayer, who immediately shows his leanings toward future Nazism by telling Lukas that he has pure blood and that the mountains are the truest test of a man and a symbol of pride for Germany. The story quickly shifts to Lukas as an adult, as he continues to foster his love of climbing (under the scrutiny of Wolayer), reluctantly joins the Nazi army, fights, and is wounded. He is taken prisoner and sent, by Heinrich—now a Communist Russian—to a camp in Siberia. Eventually, Lukas is freed and finally gets to prove himself on a Himalayan climb.

Chaundy-Smart (founding editor of Gripped magazine) deftly weaves a book of mountaineering into the history of the era. Above the Reich is a look at how fascism became interwoven in the German interwar pastime of alpinism. In Lukas, Smart crafts a climber who climbs for himself when others do it for the Führer, and the consequences of those decisions resonate throughout the book. It’s not quite Seven Years in Tibet, but a worthy addition to the look at mountaineering and Nazism.


Review originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review Feb. 2017