Review: Rook

RookSharon Cameron, Rook

Centuries after a shift in the Earth’s magnetic poles triggered an apocalyptic event, civilization has been rebuilt, but almost every form of technology is regarded with grave suspicion. In the Sunken City (formerly known as Paris), a revolution has established an oppressive new regime, and everyone who opposes it is ruthlessly executed. But one person dares to flout the authority of this new regime by stealing political prisoners away from their very jail cells: the Red Rook, who boldly leaves a crow’s feather tipped in red in the place of each escapee. No one suspects that the Red Rook is a teenage girl, Sophia Bellamy, who lives in the neighboring Commonwealth. With the help of her brother Tom, her friend Spear, and a small band of loyal friends, Sophia hopes to rescue as many doomed people from the Sunken City as she can. But her plans are complicated by her betrothal to the empty-headed social butterfly René Hasard. Despite her distrust of him, however, Sophia can’t help being attracted — especially when she discovers that his foppish persona might be an act. When a mission goes awry and Tom is captured, Sophia is forced to ask for René’s help, but can she really trust him?

Obviously, this book is an homage to one of my very favorite books, The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I was pleased to discover that it’s very much its own story. The basic idea of a daring rescuer with a secret identity is the same, but the plot diverges very significantly from the original story. I wouldn’t have minded a stricter retelling, but I’m glad this book was able to be inspired by the Pimpernel without simply copying it. I’m not sure how I feel about the science fiction elements; technically we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, but that doesn’t really seem to be necessary to the story, and it sometimes felt distracting. On the other hand, there are a few fun moments where the characters speak reverently about little bits of neon plastic, which are great treasures in this anti-technological world. Overall, I enjoyed both the action-filled plot and the romance, although the latter was a bit TOO romance-y for me (a little too much russet hair and piercing blue eyes and whatnot). I also think René’s true nature could have been left in a little more doubt, which would have increased the dramatic tension. But I did like this book a lot, and Pimpernel fans should definitely check it out!

Review: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, TheLauren Willig, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

In the autumn of 1806, a popular novel called The Convent of Orsino (written by none other than Miss Gwen!) has sparked a vampire craze in fashionable society. Rumors swirl around one man in particular — Lucien, Duke of Belliston — whose long absence from society is seen as evidence that he is a creature of the night. Practical, outspoken Sally Fitzhugh is determined to prove this rumor false, so she seeks out an acquaintance with the duke. For Lucien, the rumor escalates from inconvenient to dangerous when a young woman is murdered at a society ball, with what appear to be fang marks on her throat. Lucien and Sally quickly realize that someone is framing Lucien for the murder, so together they decide to find the real killer. Is it someone with a personal grudge against Lucien, or could the nefarious French spy known as the Black Tulip be at work again? The more time Lucien and Sally spend together, the more they are drawn to each other; but before they can be together, they must defeat a cunning killer.

This 11th novel in the Pink Carnation series once again combines romance, historical fiction, and a touch of intrigue for a very enjoyable read. I wasn’t totally enthused about the plot of this installment beforehand, since vampires aren’t really my thing, but fortunately they’re not a big part of the story. I also didn’t completely warm up to Lucien or Sally, both of whom seem like types rather than characters…Sally in particular just seems like a younger version of Miss Gwen. But there’s still an awful lot to enjoy in this book! I was pleasantly surprised by the resolution of the mystery, which is quite clever and hangs together well. And as always, I adore the light, tongue-in-cheek tone of the series; it doesn’t take itself too seriously and aims to be entertaining above all else. I should mention that the contemporary story takes some significant steps forward in this installment, with Eloise facing important decisions both personally and professionally. So I’m really looking forward to the next (and last!) Pink Carnation novel, which will finally tell the story of the Carnation herself!

Review: Double Cross

Double CrossBen Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Seventy years ago, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy and began the campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Many circumstances contributed to the success of the D-Day invasion, but one of the most important factors was the campaign of disinformation being fed to the Germans by a network of double agents whose sole purpose was to convince the Abwehr that the Allies would be landing at Calais rather than Normandy. Had these agents failed, the Germans would have concentrated their forces at Normandy, most likely stopping the Allied invasion in its tracks. This book tells the stories of the individual double agents involved in this task, including Serbian playboy Dusko Popov (“Tricycle”), Peruvian socialite Elvira Chaudoir (“Bronx”), and Polish nationalist Roman Czerniawski (“Valentine”). Ultimately, Macintyre makes a convincing case for the proposition that the Allies would never have won the war on the battlefields had they not already won the intelligence war.

This book gives a wealth of fascinating detail about the six men and women who acted as double agents in Britain, allegedly spying for Germany but really working for the Allies. I was shocked to learn that British intelligence had actually discovered and turned every German agent in Britain at the time! Because of this, the Allies were able to present a unified message to the Germans, subtlely directing their attention away from Normandy and toward other possible invasion sites. Some of the specific stories in the book prove once again that truth is stranger than fiction: for example, Dusko Popov thrived on creating networks of sub-agents that were entirely fictional, yet he retained the Abwehr’s complete trust. I also loved the fact that these double agents were handled in Britain by the Twenty Committee, so named because the Roman numeral for 20 is XX, or “double cross.” In short, if you’re interested in true stories of WWII-era espionage, Ben Macintyre is your man!

Review: The Passion of the Purple Plumeria

The Passion of the Purple PlumeriaLauren Willig, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria

In the eyes of the world, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows is the fiercely protective chaperone of Miss Jane Wooliston, who is currently one of the belles of Parisian society. But since Jane is also the elite British spy known as the Pink Carnation, Miss Gwen’s duties also include strategy, swordsmanship, and a taste for the dangerous work of espionage. Miss Gwen thrives upon the excitement of her double life, but she is forced to return to England when Jane’s younger sister goes missing from her prestigious boarding school. A second girl has also disappeared: the youngest daughter of Colonel William Reid, an officer of the British East India Company who has recently returned to England to reunite with his daughters. Now Miss Gwen and Colonel Reid must work together to find the missing girls — and fight their increasing attraction to one another, because Miss Gwen is all too aware that her clandestine activities are the probable reason for the girls’ disappearance.

This is the 10th book in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, and as I expected, it was a fun Regency romp complete with legendary Indian treasure, a meeting of the Hellfire Club, and a sinister French master spy. I like the fact that Willig chose a more mature hero and heroine for this installment of the series; it lent a bit of substance to the story, although the book still retains the series’ trademark light and fluffy tone. Miss Gwen is in her 40s and has long despaired of ever finding romance, so the relationship between her and Colonel Reid is particularly sweet and satisfying. I also liked how Willig is starting to gather the loose threads from some of her earlier books; for example, Colonel Reid is the father of Alex Reid from The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and some of the events of that novel are relevant to this story. I am really hoping that Jack Reid, the black sheep of the family, is a hero in one of the future Pink Carnation books! All in all, I’m still enjoying this series and will continue to read more by Willig.

Review: Operation Mincemeat

Operation MincemeatBen Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory

This book about a World War II intelligence operation proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction. In the spring of 1943, the Allies hoped to invade a Europe that was firmly in control of the Nazis. The obvious target for an invasion was Sicily, but unfortunately, the Germans knew this all too well. So a few creative members of British intelligence came up with a daring plan, codenamed “Operation Mincemeat”: They would float a dead body wearing a British uniform onto a Spanish beach. This corpse would be carrying top-secret — and totally false — documents stating that the Allies were planning to launch a two-pronged attack against Greece and Sardinia; Sicily would only be a “decoy” target. Since neutral Spain had pro-German sympathies, it was hoped that the Spaniards would turn over these documents to the Germans and thus convince the Axis to rearrange their defensive forces. This book tells the story of this extraordinary plan and its even more extraordinary success.

I’m not normally a big reader of nonfiction, but the premise of this book caught my attention right away, and I’m really glad it did! This is an extremely readable and entertaining account of a plan so farfetched, it couldn’t possibly be true — except it is. The book covers every aspect of Operation Mincemeat with meticulous attention to detail, describing everything from the difficulties of acquiring an appropriate body to the creation of a fictitious identity for the corpse to the various personalities who contributed to the formation of the plan. To me, one of the most astonishing things about the operation was how easily everything could have gone wrong. What if the Spanish authorities had returned the documents to the British immediately (as, indeed, some of them tried to do)? What if the Germans had been skeptical of this intelligence instead of eagerly grasping at a welcome piece of news? In short, this is a well-written account of an absolutely fascinating subject. I definitely plan to read more by Ben Macintrye — Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies is already on my wishlist!