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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-08-07 21:04
Devil's Due
Devil's Due - Phyllis Bottome

She was a woman who had wanted to be free; and had paid her own price for it. Max had no objection to her freedom. On the contrary, it would make his own course of action simpler. He would not have respected her scruples, but he would respect her pluck.

I may have turned to Bottome's books because of the connection with Ian Fleming (who lived with Bottome and her husband when he was a troubled teen), but having read several of her novels now, I have to admit that there is something about them that I really enjoy. 

 

That something that keeps me coming back to her books is, I assume, her way of looking at the world around her and reflecting that outlook in her books. She was daringly modern, and refreshingly individualistic, especially for the time period that she wrote in.

 

I say I assume that this is what draws me to the books because it certainly is not the plotting and - oh my god - it is definitely not the writing... Bottome was a writer who managed to gift us the following:

Plunged into fathomless sleep, Mariandel became conscious that a chicken was tapping at its shell. It tapped this side, it tapped that, but the darkness of the shell held it in. She began to be afraid that its beak was too soft, or the shell too hard, and that it would never get out. Tap! tap! tap! No! that was no chicken!

You see what I mean about the writing. I still have flashbacks to that chicken dream.

 

Yet, at the same time, she also gave us a cast of characters who are brilliantly faulty and brilliantly human, and who all struggle between doing the right thing, the easy thing, and the expected thing. 

 

Devil's Due was written in 1931, which is something I had to keep in mind when reading this.

 

The story is about an Austrian nobleman who had lost his fortune at cards, and who tries to make his way back to the life of luxury by any which way he can, which is mostly being a cad. One day, he meets his match in a young noblewoman who nearly ran him over when skiing. As it turns out, she falls for him but doesn't want a relationship  - 1931!!! - and she is perfectly fine with him being married, not asking his wife for a divorce (because he wants her to at least have the benefit of his title after he squandered her dowry - such a great guy....*insert eye roll*), until a divorce cannot be avoided (there is another man...and a messy love octagon).

Long story short, they get married, he's still a cad, she despairs, he re-marries his ex-wife.

 

The plot is odd...but not as odd as Murder in the Bud...but where the story comes to shine is, again, in the characters' acceptance that they need to break with the social norms in order to find some happiness in their lives. And they did, it just wasn't to be a HEA. 

 

I really enjoyed this, except for the odd eye-roll here and there, but I fully know that her later books were better and this isn't quite one of the better ones, yet. It does show all the potential, tho. 

 

As with The Lifeline, Devil's Due also has an Ian Fleming connection. Fleming lived with the Bottome's for a while when his mother was fed up with his antics, and he was fed up with the antics of his mother. He was a troubled teen, started philandering quite early, and caused all sorts of mischief. He did look up to Bottome and her husband as quasi parents, however, and - trusting Pam Hirsch's biography of Bottome, they remained life-long friends. Bottome clearly saw a lot of potential in Fleming, and in Devil's Due, she based one of the more likeable characters - a very natural young ski instructor - on Fleming, who will play a pivotal role at the end of the story.

 

Still, I could not help but picture the below, every time Fleming's character appeared on the scene:

 

(Photo found in Pam Hirsch's The Constant Liberal: The Life and Work of Phyllis Bottome)

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review 2018-08-07 17:43
Moonraker / Ian Fleming
Moonraker - Ian Fleming

As the super patriot and war veteran who’s bankrolling Britain’s top-secret Moonraker rocket program, Sir Hugo Drax should be above reproach. But there’s more to this enigmatic millionaire than he lets on. When M suspects Drax of cheating at cards in an exclusive gentleman’s club, he sends Bond in to investigate. But exposing the deception only enrages Drax—and now 007 must outwit an angry man with the power to loose a nuclear warhead on London.

The mysterious death of the head of security at Drax’s missile base gives Bond the perfect opportunity to go undercover to find out the secret agenda of the supposed British war hero. With the help of another agent, the lustrous Gala Brand, 007 learns the truth about Drax’s battle scars, his wartime allegiances—and his murderous plans for the deployment of Moonraker.

 

***2018 Summer of Spies***

The oddest so far in the James Bond series. I was about two thirds of the way through when I started to wonder when something of significance would happen! The last third, however, held all the action that I’d been asking for.

A very slow start, back to Bond & his card expertise. Having just read Tim Powers’ Last Call, which heavily involves poker and other games of chance, I was maybe a bit worn out with the card games! However, what I did find fascinating in the opening pages of the book was Fleming’s description of James Bond’s schedule:

”It was the beginning of a typical routine day for Bond. It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going senior civil servant—elastic office hours from around ten to six; lunch, generally at the canteen; evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.”


This is Fleming, the now-married man, describing his life during his stint in naval intelligence! It could almost have been written by his biographer, Andrew Lycett.

The third book in the Bond series, this is first one in which Bond doesn’t get the girl. I found the last sentence to be a bit sad: “He touched her for the last time and then they turned away from each other and walked off into their different lives.” Fleming drew so much from his personal life for these books that it makes me wonder who he had in mind when he wrote such a melancholy final line.

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review 2018-08-07 17:00
Her Royal Spyness / Rhys Bowen
Her Royal Spyness - Rhys Bowen

Georgie, aka Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, cousin of King George V of England, is penniless and trying to survive on her own as an ordinary person in London in 1932.

So far she has managed to light a fire and boil an egg... She's gate-crashed a wedding... She's making money by secretly cleaning houses... And she's been asked to spy for Her Majesty the Queen.

Everything seems to be going swimmingly until she finds a body in her bathtub... and someone is definitely trying to kill her.

 

 

***2018 Summer of Spies***

What an absolutely charming beginning to a series! Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie is a poverty-stricken gentlewoman, 34th in the line of succession to the throne, trying to keep up appearances with little to no income. This author makes the most of the fascination with the Royal family and the deportment of Queen Victoria and her successors. For example:

”The sight of one female person slinking across the forecourt on foot would definitely have my esteemed relative-by-marriage, Her Royal Majesty and Empress of India, Queen Mary, raise an eyebrow. Well, probably not actually raise the eyebrow because personages of royal blood are trained not to react, even to the greatest of improprieties. Were a native in some dark corner of the colonies to strip off his loincloth and dance, waggling his you-know-what with gay abandon, not so much as an eyebrow twitch would be permitted. The only appropriate reaction would be polite clapping when the dance was over.”



A great deal of fun is had with the whole “we are not amused” stereotype, the contrast between Britons and Americans, and the differences between the classes. Don’t be looking for hard-hitting class commentary here, however. Most of the fun derives from the fact that Georgie and her brother are so clueless with regard to the actual running of a household and are so dependent on their servants that they can barely start a fire or boil water for tea.

There is a romantic aspect to the tale as well—Georgie is expected to either find suitable employment for a woman of her rank or find a husband with enough money to keep them in the style that they are accustomed to, money being more important than love in the equation. Georgie, however, has her own ideas on the suitability of husbands and she may have to dodge some of Queen Mary’s ideas on the subject.

Light & fluffy, perfect for summertime reading!

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review 2018-07-23 21:43
Live and Let Die / Ian Fleming
Live and Let Die - Ian Fleming

Beautiful, fortune-telling Solitaire is the prisoner (and tool) of Mr Big—master of fear, artist in crime and Voodoo Baron of Death. James Bond has no time for superstition—he knows that this criminal heavy hitter is also a top SMERSH operative and a real threat. More than that, after tracking him through the jazz joints of Harlem, to the everglades and on to the Caribbean, 007 has realized that Big is one of the most dangerous men that he has ever faced. And no-one, not even the mysterious Solitaire, can be sure how their battle of wills is going to end…

 

***2018 Summer of Spies***

Wow, this book has not aged gracefully. The casual racism really overwhelmed everything else for me. The dust jacket stated that Fleming had spent some time with the NY police as research. He seems to have absorbed their attitudes towards African-Americans without any reservations. All the black characters seem to be superstitious, criminal, or both. At least he allows Mr. Big to be a really talented criminal, not a push-over.

Fleming’s own attitudes towards women shine through his Bond character with regard to Solitare, the white woman who he rescues from Mr. Big. Fleming seems to have regarded women as conquests and told many people that women were more like pets to him than people [per Andrew Lycett’s biography of IF]. Fleming was well known as a womanizer and was accused by several people of being ‘a cad and a bounder,’ something which he did not dispute. Solitare is mostly a prize for Bond, something to be enjoyed once the action is over with.

Despite that, there are some bright spots—Fleming was very familiar with Jamaica, owning a house there and spending a great deal of his time swimming, diving, and fishing while he was in residence at Goldeneye, his Jamaican home. The scenery and details of this setting are extremely well realized in Live and Let Die. The descriptions of fish during Bond’s dives are fabulous, too. Unsurprisingly, the Jamaican portions of the book are far superior to those set in the United States. [I also thought that the fishy method of smuggling was an ingenious invention and I loved the shark tank!]

One can’t have a Summer of Spies without James Bond, so I’ll be proceeding on to Moonraker in short order. And, incidentally, I still love Paul McCartney's song Live and Let Die which was written for the movie version.

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review 2018-07-22 16:54
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

 

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

 

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

 

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

 

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth...no matter where it leads.

 

 

I have probably mentioned this before, but I love WWI and WWII books that focus primarily on women's experiences during the war. I also have a weakness for dual timeline books. The Alice Network really worked for me. 

 

I will say that the 1947 timeline wasn't nearly as compelling as the 1915 timeline - Eve's experiences in occupied France gathering intelligence were gritty, realistic and heart-stoppingly dangerous. The 1947 timeline often felt like an annoying diversion that ground the true narrative to a halt.

 

Charlotte, or Charlie, the POV character in the 1947 timeline didn't 100% read like a young woman from 1947. She used expressions that felt modern, and, more importantly, I'm not sure that Quinn completely sold her behavior given the societal mores of 1947. But, I did enjoy the Thelma and Louise-esque adventures of Charlie, Eve and Finn, Eve's driver/Charlies taciturn Scottish love interest.

 

As is typically the case in this type of novel, the two timelines eventually merge to answer many of the questions that have been left unanswered for decades. It is a bit overly reliant on coincidence and the seeming ubiquitous invulnerability of one of the primary villains, but overall, I devoured this book and was sorry to see it end!

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