Category Archives: Fiction – historical

Review: The Bullet Garden, Earl Swagger #3 (Stephen Hunter)

The D-Day landings have been a success. The Allies are now in France. But they’re not making a great deal of headway because of one dreaded word: snipers.

The areas between the hedges are being called the bullet garden, thanks to snipers working seemingly without any limitations, picking off soldiers at will. It’s clear that to get going inland, the Allies are going to have to solve this particular problem.

Enter Gunnery Sergeant Earl Swagger. He is not, at this time, working as a sniper. Injured in the Pacific campaign, he’s now instructing fresh new Marines at Parris Island, dealing out hard truths. He’s talked into going to Europe for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) to flush out the snipers gumming up the works. He agrees, is giving a commission as a Major in the US Army, and put on a plane.

He’s given a staff, some offices, and told to get to work, which he does – much to the chagrin and annoyance of another officer, who doesn’t like any other fiefdoms clogging up his own fiefdom. Swagger isn’t one much for office politics and tells his staff – primarily, his second in command, who in reality outranks him, and his aide de camp – to ignore the other officer, as he’ll handle it. He does this as well, in a subtle way, the amusing lesson worthy of being taught to office workers in modern times.

In the meantime, in a sequence I personally thought funny as hell thanks to the crazy reasoning he gives, Swagger puts together a profile of the snipers to his boss and a couple of other brass, which they accept as sound. I’ll leave it at that so as not to spoil it, but I urge you to think hard on it as the book continues, to see if you can spot the reason why before Swagger explains it.

Swagger is then given a field team to go sniper hunting, which includes two young soldiers who left Harvard to join, and whom we met in the opening chapters. While some readers may be able to figure out the how of the snipers striking as they do, it’s much more difficult to get to the who of the group – and I certainly didn’t guess their identities.

There’s a subplot about a romance and a spy in the office, but the latter was dead easy to spot. That aside, it’s a terrific read and well worth the time to invest.

Four and a half out of five stars, rounded up to five.

Thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Agent in Berlin – Wolf Pack Spies #1 (Alex Gerlis)

Another fantastic book from Alex Gerlis, whose Richard Prince novels are as fine fiction as I’ve ever read.

We’re back to Berlin and more spying, except this time, it’s a bona fide ring of spies, cast from diverse characters living in Berlin.

Barnaby Allen is recruited to the spy game and tasked with setting up a network of spies in Berlin after the Nazis have taken hold but before the invasion of Poland in 1939. He also encourages those recruits to be on the lookout for others who may be willing to engage in a very dangerous game as well.

His very first recruit is a gay German citizen and businessman, Werner Lustenberger, who is affable, charming, and about as Bondian a spy as it gets in Gerlis’ world. He befriends, and then beds a member of the SS, among other things.

American Jack Miller joins the ring of spies, having come to Berlin to cover the Olympics, and who stays to write travel and sports pieces, which allows him to go practically anywhere with a ready-made reason to be there. He gets friendly with the Reich’s sports minister, who gives him additional protection when he wanders out of bounds a couple of times.

There’s Sophie, sick of her high ranking SS husband, and who finds the husband’s personal diaries and realizes the horrific things he’s doing. Though afraid, she’s able and willing to do the things the spywork requires: taking pictures of various places, getting people out of the country, and so on.

And there’s the saddest spy ever: Tadashi Kimura, a diplomat at the Japanese embassy in Berlin, who, in his words, commits treason for the sake of love.

Spycraft abounds: secret meeting places, coded phone calls, and, as the years roll by, an ever-tightening, claustrophobic feeling that the next encounter could be game over for the spies. For some of them, alas, it is.

It’s a fascinating read that at points may feel slow but isn’t: the slower areas are just a pause, so the various pieces can be put into place before setting the board in motion once more.

Highly recommended, and five stars out of five.

Thanks to Canelo and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Perks of Loving a Wallflower – The Wild Wynchesters #2 (Erica Ridley)

This book two in a series – something not on the cover. As is becoming a regular occurrence for me, I have not read the first. Based on the ending of this one, there’s likely a third brewing somewhere. This does serve as a standalone, however, and there aren’t many issues with knowing what came before except a few passages that are explained/thought about by the characters.

Philippa York, the daughter of a well off but untitled family, is an intellectual and rapidly reaching her sell by date. Her mother is furious that she failed to marry a duke – this occurred in the last book, and there is enough context given here to understand at least that it didn’t go through. What’s a mother in Regency England to do? Work on finding her someone else to marry, who has a title and money, of course. For her part, Philippa despairs of finding a man who stirs anything within her.

Tommy (Thomasina) Wynchester is a master of disguises and has been pining for Philippa for at least a year. They apparently met during the previous book, but Tommy didn’t have the guts to talk to her. These days, Tommy disguises herself as Aunt Wynchester, a regular attendee at Philippa’s salons. Tommy is much braver when dressing up as someone else, and decides to dress up as Lord Vanderbean. While riding in the park, she speaks to Philippa and her mother, charming Philippa and at least not causing her mother to go ballistic.

Successful in the enterprise, Tommy continues to act as Tommy, and enters into a bargain with Philippa: Tommy will help Philippa find a suitable, titled man to marry by pretending that Tommy is wooing Philippa – after all, many people want most what it seems they can’t have.

This works about as well as one might think, and eventually the charade breaks down, with Philippa rightfully accusing Tommy of deceiving her and Tommy not able to offer up much of a defense other than she wanted to be close to Philippa because she loved her.

There’s a subplot that exists only to scuttle Philippa’s engagement to a man with a title her mother approves of, involving the breaking of a cipher, done by one of the members of Philippa’s salon and the credit for which is claimed by her cousin, the man to whom Philippa is now engaged. The entire Wynchester family gets involved to help gather the evidence to prove it is not his prize to claim. I’d have liked more on this, but it’s a romance primarily, not a mystery.

Readers of Regencies in particular and romances in general will probably like this quite a bit. Ridley is a well-known historical romance author and knows how to weave a tale. My only real quibble is that the Wynchester clan doesn’t seem to have a dud among the bunch, and Tommy herself doesn’t seem to have many, if any, flaws beyond a crippling sort of stage fright as it relates to speaking to Philippa as herself and not Lord Vanderbean. Other than that, she’s confident in everything that doe does.

For those who worry about such things, there are several sex scenes in the book; they are not terribly explicit, but if you like your sex scenes to be off the page, you may want to skip those pages.

Overall, a solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Forever/Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Opium Prince (Jasmine Aimaq)

I will no doubt be in the minority on this book.

I wanted to enjoy it: set in Afghanistan in the 1970s, with the opium becoming one of the defining symbols of the country, Russia attempting to take the country, the US creating and arming the Taliban as an answer, and within all this turmoil, David Sajedi, half American and half Afghani, working for an American agency attempting to destroy the opium trade by taking out poppy fields, hits and kills a young girl while driving.

What is not to like? This: the book could not determine what it wanted to be. This will no doubt draw comments about how many books don’t fit into a single category, and it’s x of me to try to apply labels. Yes, some books defy categorization. In order to do this, though, they must be consistent, and they must be well written throughout. Characters are introduced and that appear to be playing a part in this book in some important way are never heard from or about) again. Thee are some pacing issues as well. The shifts in writing range from soaring language that is almost poetic to basic noun-verb-period. There are also some weird references to other books as we slog to the end that make no sense at all.

The premise is good. the story should be good, placed against that background. I just didn’t really like the execution. Sorry, not for me.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to Soho Press/Soho Crime and NetGalley for the reading copy.