Category Archives: Action/Espionage/Thriller

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky – Simon Mawer

Picking up The Girl Who Fell From the Sky last week – I had one of those ‘library love’ moments. Another reminder of the wonderfulness of libraries – I had been looking out for this novel since it was published in May and there it was – in a similar place to where I found Julia last week. For anybody in London who has access to an Ideas Store library – I can recommend taking a look.

This is the third of Mawer’s books I’ve read since discovering him this year; The Glass Room (loved it), Swimming to Ithaca (liked it quite a bit) and now The Girl Who Fell From the Sky which I loved. That is a simple summary but it is actually easy to do as the stories are all quite different. The are all set against a background of war or conflict but the style of each is unique – and all enjoyable to read.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is Marian, also known as Alice or Anne-Marie or Laurent. British and a fluent French speaker, this is the story of her recruitment,training and eventual mission in France as a Special Operations Executive during World War II. It is such a fun story to read with a straightforward narrative style. Marian is a likeable, gutsy character and by keeping control of the scope of the story, the author creates time to spend on the little details making Marian seem all the more authentic. I won’t write too much about her mission, Operation Trapeze, except to say it has all the danger and multi layered intrigue you might expect. This is a mission of such importance that nothing is off limits, including family bonds and personal relationships.

This is the simplest telling of the books I have read so far by Simon Mawer. The Glass Room was arty and haunting and there was a dual narrative in Swimming to Ithaca. Apart from the title which I didn’t especially like (fairly or not, it reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series), The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was my favourite of the books to read – if things like sleep and work hadn’t got in the way, I would have read it in one sitting.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

I picked The Reluctant Fundamentalist up from the library yesterday and read the final chapter this morning. At 184 pages it is a short novel with short chapters and written in a way that encouraged me to keep reading – one of those “I’ll just read one more chapter” type of books. This was one of the things I enjoyed about it, that it was an effortless read.

The story is told as a one way conversation and takes place at a market place cafe in Lahore, Pakistan. The narrator is Changez, a young local man who was educated at Princeton University and ensconsed in the corporate world of New York prior to the events of September 11 2001. His companion is a stranger whom Changez recognises as an American and approaches offering assistance.

Over the next several hours, tea and dinner, Changez tells his life story to this stranger.

He talks of his arrival in America, his schooling and his recruitment by Underwood Samson, an elite firm in the financial world. He talks of the doors that were opened to him, the money he could make, the competitiveness and sense of achievement. During this time he fell in love with Erica, an American girl from a good family. He talked again about the opportunities afforded him from this relationship, he was introduced to an echelon of society that reminded him of the good days in Lahore, prior to its decline. On a business trip to Asia, he even tried to appear more American, seeing the respect his American colleagues were being given.

After the terroist attacks of 9/11 and especially the later threat of war between India and Pakistan, he felt conflicted, becoming disillusioned and angry with his adopted country.

We don’t get to hear from the stranger, his nervousness and occasional questions are relayed back by Changez. It becomes apparent that perhaps their meeting is not a co-incidence or perhaps it is. There is a palpable tension as the story evolves, the market place begins to clear and darkness draws in. The stranger seems to be on the clock, the waiter especially attentive, the narrator insistent on being in control and being able to complete his story.

The book gave me food for thought. Because it is a one way conversation, there are questions I had that were left unanswered, intentionally I think. Having finished the book I’m still unsure of everything that happened. I did enjoy it but I was expecting something different, more meaty. I wasn’t that interested in the romantic side of the story which seemed a bit weak and unnecessary.The book was very well written though so I’m sure there was a point to it being included.

Overall I found this to be very good and I’m pleased to have read it.

Read for the Support Your Local Library and Global challenges. I’m also going to count it towards the South Asian Author challenge which I still need to officially join.


2007, 224 pages

Uncommon Danger – Eric Ambler

Shortly before heading off on our holiday at the end of last year, we ventured into Fortnum & Mason to pick up some of their delicious chocolates for my family. For treats I love it in there but so it seemed did half of London on that day. We gratefully escaped and next door discovered the sanctuary that is Hatchards Bookshop.

I didn’t know at the time but it is the oldest bookshop in the UK, trading since 1797. It isn’t independant any more but I thought it had a lovely cosy feel, complete with winding staircase and a nice selection of books including a little section especially for Persephones. A place to be revisited.

I was admiring a display of several of Eric Ambler’s early political thrillers written in the 1930’s and reprinted as Penguin modern classics. A few weeks later Santa suprised me and I had my first read for 2010.

Uncommon Danger was published in 1937 and it was interesting to read a spy novel written before the outbreak of the second world war. Obviously by this stage the rising fortunes of the nazi party had not gone unnoticed in Europe. The backdrop for this story is the jostling for positon between Roumania and the Soviet Union in particular – with the inevitable expansion of Germany looming.

Also interesting is that Ambler’s hero is of the reluctant variety. An ordinary man. Kenton is a good journalist but with a gambling problem. On a train from Nuremberg bound for Linz in Austria and desperate for cash, he accepts a suspicous offer to carry documents over the border.

Predictably, this isn’t the best decision he has ever made and he finds himself on the run, hotly pursed by various nasties.

I’m not sure how I feel about the “hero” of a story like this being ordinary and flawed. Admitedly he was a grafter and did the right thing and he didn’t take the easy option – realistic perhaps rather than seemingly infallible.

I thought the plot was clever but I found it slightly hard to follow. It might be that it went over my head but I did need to concentrate to follow it.

The sense of atmosphere was excellent. I could imagine the dark, the cold and the narrow side streets. The fatigue and despair of a man without resources runnng for his life and not knowing why. The cunning of those fighting for the information he has, not knowing who to trust.

Several of Eric Ambler’s books were made into films. I’m still undecided if his style is for me.I’m going to try another one of his books and see how it goes…

Counted towards the 2010 Decades challenge.

The Silver Bear – Derek Haas

I am participating in Rebecca’s Colourful reading challenge and had come to the time when I needed a book with silver in the title. My boyfriend came across The Silver Bear, a novel about a hitman. The only other options seemed to be fantasy or a childrens story which are not my favourites so The Silver Bear it was.

I’m smiling as I write this because I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s a first person account by “Colombus” of his life as a highly skilled assassin, how he came to be what he is and the sacrifices he has made for his profession. Because it’s told in the first person it all seems a bit dramatic and there are lots of very cheesy, over the top descriptions of things. But.. and this is what makes me smile.. I liked it and read it really quickly.

It was a pure escapist read and I don’t think I would really recommend it unless the subject really appeals, but it was fun. One reviewer on Amazon described it as a guilty pleasure and I think this sums it up perfectly. And there is a sequel. I wonder if I will be tempted to read it!

The Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett

His weapon is the stiletto, his codename: The Needle.

I love a good spy story and have been trying to squeeze The Eye of the Needle into my reading pile for a while. I was delighted to discover it had won The Edgar Award for best novel in 1979 and I could read it guilt free for the Book Awards challenge!

I expected it to be excellent and it was. A classic spy story set in WWII. Henry Faber is Die Nadel (The Needle), Germany’s best agent having been planted and firmly established in England for years. He has survived for so long because he trusts nobody including his superiors in Germany. He is sophisticated, clever and ruthless – trusted implicitly by Hitler himself.

His role is to find out the Allies plans for the D Day invasion and get that information back to Germany. Calais or Normandy? The outcome of the war is in the balance. Germany waiting for the word of one man, the Allies relying on one man and his small team to stop him.

I found it to be perfectly paced with an exciting plot, well developed characters and not too many of them, time for a bit of romance which I don’t generally like in this sort of book but it was part of the plot so that was ok. The main appeal was the character of Faber. It was impossible not to respect him. He was the enemy but an attractive and inspiring enemy.

I loved it and read it in a little over a day – it was impossible to put down. Also read for the War Through the Generations – WWII challenge.

Nancy Wake – The inspiring story of one of the war’s greatest heroines – Peter Fitzsimmons

Nancy Wake

“She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”

Henri Tardivat (Resistance comrade)

When Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand in 1912, the Maori midwife in attendance was delighted to find a kahu (thin membrane) around the baby’s head. This she predicted would bring Nancy good luck throughout her life. She would need to draw on this luck as the life she embarked upon saw her become WWII’s most decorated heroine. Dubbed “The White Mouse” by the Gestapo for repeatedly avoiding capture, at one stage she was on the top of their most wanted list.

Growing up in Australia, Nancy yearned to travel. London, Paris, New York beckoned. She was a determined and ingenious child and started saving from an early age. An unexpected gift of $200 from an aunt, a large amount at the time, allowed her to finally set sail. She made her way to the places on her list, trained herself as a journalist in London and continued her travels around Europe. It was on the streets of Paris and Vienna that she first saw the violence of the Nazi’s with their ever increasing power. After witnessing a horrific incident involving Jews being chained to a revolving wheel and being whipped in the street, she promised herself she would whatever she could to stop them.

She was to remain true to that promise. Living in Marseille with her French husband when the Germans invaded, she started off as a courier with the then infant resistance before playing a crucial role in helping hundreds of people escape through France and cross the Pyrenees to safety. She ended up having to take this route herself after being betrayed.It took six attempts over six months to make it across. From there she went to Britain, trained as a Special Operatives Executive, was parachuted back into France and helped to lead the 7000 Maquis soldiers, the French Resistance Guerillas. One of the key roles of the Maquis was to assist the Allies invasion of Normandy by their delaying tactics with the enemy.

Nancy Wake

This book is full of the details of Nancy’s early life, her glamorous married life in France pre war and all her brave actions during the war. I will leave all those amazing details for people wanting to read the book to discover.

Peter Fitzsimmons, a fellow Australian, has written this biography after spending many hours speaking to Nancy Wake. It has taken me a while to collect my thoughts on this book. I appreciated all the details of her early life and escapades and was fascinated with her war time story, her determination, passion and bravery. She made repeated personal sacrifices. In esaping the Gestapo she had to leave her husband behind  and she continually risked her life to help others.

What I didn’t enjoy so much was the style or tone of the book, the way the information was presented. It is told in a flippant, slightly cocky way with plenty (I felt) of the authors own little remarks thrown in. Eg: “She was not a happy little vegemite”. In fairness I think Peter Fitzsimmons was probably trying to share the flavour he felt came through when speaking with Nancy Wake, she was apparently quite brash and said things as they were, but it was all a bit enthusiastic and I felt it trivialised the story somewhat.

Nancy Wake has written her own autobiography,The White Mouse, which seems to be hard to come by and Russell Braddon has also written the biography Nancy Wake, SOE’s Greatest Heroine.

I had been looking out for a book on Nancy Wake and picked this up from my local second hand book shop. I’m pleased to have read her story. 

Published: 2002
Pages: 320
Challenges: War Through the Generations – WWII

Eastern Approaches – Fitzroy Maclean

Maclean2

Ever since I saw Matt’s review of this book earlier in the year, I have been itching to read it. It took me a while to track down a pre loved copy but the copy I eventually read is very authentic and of that period, so much so that the price on the cover is in shillings and pence!

A friend of Ian Fleming’s, there is speculation that Fitzroy Maclean was the real life inspiration for the character James Bond, totally believable after reading these amazing memoirs.

This book is Maclean’s account of his early career before and during the second world war. Starting as a British diplomat in Paris, he secured for himself a posting to Moscow. Here, against all odds, through sheer determination and with uninvited Soviet NKVD escorts, he achieved his dream (one of many) of visiting the central Asian countries of Samarkand, Tashkent and Bokhara. He then witnessed the Stalin show trials before enlisting at the start of the war. Here he spent time masquerading as an Italian officer in the North African desert with the SAS before heading into Persia to kidnap a Nazi-sympathetic General.

Was there anything this man couldn’t do?! It would seem not…

Reporting directly to Winston Churchill, he was then parachuted into Yugoslavia to check out the situation with the rival Partisan groups. His brief was to find out who was killing more of the enemy and set about helping them. For 18 months he worked closely with Tito and despite differing ideologies, Tito being a committed Communist, forged an allegiance based on respect and short term mutual goals.

There is so much more contained within these pages and if any one message comes out of it, it’s the age old adage..”if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” If Maclean had been deterred at the first, second or twentieth obstacle, his story could have been so different.

Fascinating and entertaining – I would especially recommend this book for those interested in Eastern Europe around the time of WWII and lovers of adventure/travel tales.

Plenty of further reading ideas have come out of this book.At the top of my ever expanding wish list now is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – A Journey through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West. This sounds like a timeless gem.

Published
: 1949
Pages: 413
Challenges: WWII, Compass, Read your name challenge