cool and loney courageA Cool and Lonely Courage is an incredible true story of British special agents Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne, sisters who risked everything to fight for freedom during the Second World War.

When elderly recluse Eileen Nearne died, few suspected that the quiet little old lady was a decorated WWII war hero. Volunteering to serve for British intelligence at age 21, Eileen was posted to Nazi-occupied France to send encoded messages of crucial importance for the Allies, until her capture by the Gestapo. Eileen was not the only agent in her family—her sister Jacqueline was a courier for the French resistance. While Jacqueline narrowly avoided arrest, Eileen was tortured by the Nazis, then sent to the infamous Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. Astonishingly, this resourceful young woman eventually escaped her captors and found her way to the advancing American army.

In this amazing true story of triumph and tragedy, Susan Ottaway unveils the secret lives of two sisters who sacrificed themselves to defend their country. (description from publisher)

EEOnce I devoured Gail Carriger’s excellent Parasol Protectorate series, I was delighted to see that Etiquette & Espionage represents her return to the same steampunk universe of  Soulless et al. It is also a first foray for Carriger into the field of YA. This is a true YA title – it’s perfect for, and I’d recommend it heartily to, almost any teenager/YA reader. It takes place at school; the main character is 14; the gore/sex/four-letter-words are tame or nonexistent. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-discovery, resourcefulness, learning, and intelligence, as well as bravery and friendship. The only element of a typical teen novel missing? ROMANCE!

In Carriger’s adult series, romance and sex were a huge driving force behind both the plot and the characters’ motivations. Without ever being crass or gratuitous, those books are about the way adults fall in love and stay in love – emotionally and physically. But in Etiquette & Espionage, the much, much younger teenage characters are motivated by entirely different things. Sophronia, the main character, is a “covert recruit” at a floating school for future spies; here, she’ll be trained to curtsy perfectly, measure poisons precisely, and wield sewing scissors to deadly ends. Sophronia is interested in boys, and she knows about feminine charms and how she might need to deploy them in her career as a spy, but her motivation is never reduced to the moronic, unimportant whine of “I want a boyfriend!! Why doesn’t a boy love me?!” – a fixture of many other YA titles. As the series goes on and Sophronia grows up, I fully expect Ms. Carriger to allow her to expand her romantic interests in a way that is intelligent and logical for her age, but in the meantime I’m thrilled to read a novel about the teenage experience outside of the desperate “need” for a boyfriend. Etiquette & Espionage is refreshing, exciting, and leaves the door open for a bevy of sequels that will be even better now that the groundwork has been laid.

If you cared to, you could do a total immersion TTSS  (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) experience using library materials.

Prompted by the recent movie starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, I went back to the BBC version on DVD, in which Alec Guinness plays the recently retired spy. At the same time, I listened to the BBC radio play as an audiobook. Like the funhouse mirror world of espionage, each iteration was faithful to the original source material of the book in some aspects, and each one  edited parts of the narrative, as well as completely changing essential  plot points.

For example, the catalyst for the investigation of a mole in the 1980 miniseries is a night time chase in the dark woods, while the 2011 movie accomplishes the same end with a shootout in an outdoor cafe.

The TV  version is more thorough and straightforward in its storytelling, while the movie, is, of course, abridged and cinematic. Because it is more elliptical, it is helpful to have read or listened to a more unedited version.

I won’t spoil the ending; suffice it to say, the recent movie rivals The Godfather in it’s elegiac yet violent ending.

April 3

We Bought a Zoo – Matt Damon, Thomas Hadden Church

When his teenage son gets into trouble, Benjamin Mee gives up a lucrative newspaper job to move his family to the most unlikely of places: a zoo! With help from an eclectic staff, and with many misadventures along the way, Benjamin embarks on a fresh beginning to restore the dilapidated zoo to its former glory, while uniting his family. PG

War Horse – Emily Watson, David Thewlis

Set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War, this movie begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets; British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter. PG 13

April 10

Happy Feet Two – Eljah Wood, Robin Williams

Mumble, the Master of Tap, has a problem because his tiny son, Erik, is choreo-phobic. Reluctant to dance, Erik runs away and encounters the Mighty Sven, a penguin who can fly! Mumble has no hope of competing with this charismatic new role model. But things get worse when the world is shaken by powerful forces. Erik learns of his father’s ‘guts and grit’ as Mumble brings together the penguin nations and all manner of fabulous creatures. PG

Iron Lady – Meryl Streep

A surprising and intimate portrait of Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. One of the 20th century’s most famous and influential women, Thatcher came from nowhere to smash through barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world. PG 13

April 17

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner

Blamed for the terrorist bombing of the Kremlin, IMF operative Ethan Hunt is disavowed along with the rest of the agency when the president initiates ‘Ghost Protocol.’ Left without any resources or backup, Ethan must find a way to clear his agency’s name and prevent another attack. To complicate matters further, Ethan is forced to embark on his mission with a team of fellow IMF fugitives whose personal motives he does not fully know. PG 13

April 24

Contraband – Mark Wahlberg, Lukas Haas

Chris Farraday long ago abandoned his life of crime, but after his brother-in-law, Andy, botches a drug deal for his ruthless boss, Tim Briggs, Chris is forced back into doing what he does best, running contraband, to settle Andy’s debt. Chris is a legendary smuggler and quickly assembles a crew with the help of his best friend, Sebastian, to head to Panama and return with millions in counterfeit bills. Things quickly fall apart with only hours to reach the cash. R

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn

Oskar is convinced that his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, has left a message for him hidden in the city. Feeling disconnected from his grieving mother and driven by an active mind that refuses to believe in things that can’t be observed, Oskar begins searching New York City for the lock that fits a mysterious key he found in his father’s closet. His journey through the five boroughs takes him beyond his loss to a greater understanding of the world around him. PG 13

 

 

Have you zipped through Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series? Are you looking for a heroine as tough and scarred as  Lisbeth Salander? Well, look no further.

The titular Informationist, Munroe (aka Michael and Victoria) is a very high-priced gun-for-hire. Because of her facility with languages and insight into the politics and economics of other countries, she acts as a quasi-spy/private eye for governments and corporations.  She grew up in Cameroon, the daughter of missionaries, and rebelled against their religion and neglectful parenting, by going to work for a local cartel of criminals. There she learns many survival skills, useful in her current line of work.

The most interesting aspect of the book are the settings of Equatorial  Guinea and Cameroon. Munroe and her minder navigate the bureaucracy, politics and culture of these countries trying to find the daughter of a billionaire oilman.

Her job as an “informationist,” is to get the information her employer requests. In this case, whether the missing girl, Emily, is dead or alive. Such a remote part of the world is fascinatingly revealed – the climate, history, and customs are incorporated naturally into the story. The pages nearly drip with the heat and humidity.

The author herself grew up  very non-traditionally, in a “communal apocalyptic cult,” as she says. It wasn’t till she was in her twenties that she escaped. The cult traveled all over the world, including West Central Africa, which accounts for her gifted depiction of this area.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a series of Victoria Munroe books in the near future.

I feel a little bit silly now realizing that Alias:  Season One began airing almost ten years ago, and yet I am only now getting into this awesome series.  It stars Jennifer Garner as Sidney Bristow, a grad student who is part of what she thinks is a covert branch of the CIA called SD-6.  After getting engaged, she decides she has to come clean to her fiance about being a spy.  Unfortunately, since her status has now been compromised, the head of SD-6 orders that Sidney’s fiance must be killed.  This is when Sidney learns the horrible truth about SD-6:  they’re not really part of the CIA.  Rather, they’re part of an organization that the real CIA has been fighting for years.  At the end of the pilot episode, Sidney goes to CIA headquarters and offers to be a double agent and help them bring down SD-6 once and for all.

So far I’ve only gotten through season one, but I’m definitely interested in seeing more (I just checked out Alias: Season Two and I’m dying to go home and watch it!).  It’s hard to not keep watching, especially since almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger!  One of the things I have found most interesting about the series is the relationship between Sidney and her father, Jack Bristow.  After finding out that her father has also been working for SD-6 for years, she is surprised once again to find out that he’s also a double agent for the CIA.  The two have never had a close relationship, so through their double agent work, they’re getting to know each other once again.  It’s a really interesting dynamic and I’m enjoying watching it develop.  The cast is great and gels together well, and the series is well-written and has a lot of exciting action sequences.  I highly recommend it, especially if you like other J.J. Abrams series such as Lost or other dramas where women kick butt, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Dorothy Gilman’s series about a senior  spy begins with The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. The 60-something Emily Pollifax decides that she needs to do something more meaningful with her life, and begins by walking into the CIA to volunteer her services.

Published in 1966, some of the sentiments seem dated; women in their sixties today would be less likely to be have as their primary identity being a frail-looking grandmother who has never been part of the workforce. What is interesting is the Cold War attitudes and alliances. It’s one thing to set a book in the sixties, it’s another to read one written with those assumptions.

I decided to read this one after hearing Nancy Pearl’s recommendations on NPR; they were part of a list of books that featured travel. Mrs. Pollifax does get around; in this book she starts out in Mexico (acting as a courier), and ends up in Albania.  Along the way, she proves herself resourceful, tenacious and very, very tough – even by current standards. Her innocence leads her to trust others more easily than a professional spy would, but it allows her to develop relationships that will come in handy later. If you want to make a quick visit to a world gone by, and to meet a slightly eccentric but very successful spy, give these a try.

AT has visited the former Soviet Union before but feels it deserves another look – the hidden nature of it’s government and society makes it the  perfect  setting for countless spy novels.  John Le Carre, the master of the Cold War suspense novel, has  real-life experience in espionage. He was an officer in both MI5 and MI6 in the 50’s and ’60’s, when he began writing fiction.

One of my favorite le Carre novels  is Our Game, largely due to the friendship of the main chararcters and the English and Russian setting. The finale takes place in Ingushetia,  an unstable Russian subject next to Chechnya. The book starts out with a mystery; the Bath (England) Police are looking for Larry Pettifer and come to the door of his friend , and former handler, Tim Cranmer.  Tim is forced to re-enter the spy world to protect himself and to help his friend – if he can. It turns out that Larry is not just a brilliant University lecturer, but also involved in a quixotic attempt to aid the Ingush rebels.

There is no one better than le Carre in depicting the moral complexity of this murky world, in which the name of the game is deceit and deception, and he  shows how such a career is inseparable with your private life, even in retirement.


In June, when the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies who had been living and working in the U.S.  , it brought to mind books and movies that were based on this very plot. These two films were filmed near the end of the Cold War – an era that seems very distant now.

No Way Out (based on the book, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing) starred Kevin Costner as a heroic  Navy commander. In a labyrinthine plot of deceit and betrayal, Tom Farrell, as played by Costner, is forced by the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) to search for a KGB mole. The Secretary begins the investigation to distract everyone from an affair and accidental murder, but, it turns out, there is a surprising twist in this  extremely complicated plot.

Sleepers was a 4-part TV series in 1991 about two KGB agents who had been in England for 25 years. They were to establish themselves as native British citizens who would,  theoretically, be called to action someday.  However, as the Soviet Union collapsed, they were forgotten. The two men, by this time, are well established and are not anxious to disrupt their English jobs and lifestyle.  One is a factory worker with a wife and young children, the other is a playboy and  investment banker. Their accidental discovery is played out as a comedy, but there is real emotion in their dilemma.

 What is truly fascinating is the long-forgotten replica of  English kitchen, living room, etc. where the spies had learned to be British. This gives insight into what it means to be British and Russian (in the ’60’s and the ’90’s).

MI5 intelligence officer Liz Carlisle stars in Dead Line,  the fourth Stella Rimington spy novel.This time, an agent passes along a tip about a threat to a Middle East peace summit being held at a golf resort in Scotland, in which European, American and Middle Eastern heads of state will be in attendance.  Liz tries to anticipate and prevent the unknown event without disrupting the conference.

Rimington was the head of the UK counter-intelligence and security agency in the mid-90’s. Her insider knowledge of surveillance units and the relationships between the Israeli Mossad, the CIA and the home British security agencies is surely authentic.  There are interesting insights as to the etiquette of other friendly nations spying on each other. For example, Israeli diplomats who are also spies are supposed to be “registered” as such.

The MI5 in these books is a more genteel and much less frenetic organization than that of the BBC series, which was all about technology, violence and derring do.  Liz and her courtly boss Charles Wetherby have the occasional turf battle with MI6 but it’s all very civil. It makes for a pleasant change from the hyper and profane American thriller. As a matter of fact, the British make a few snide remarks about their arrogant, but highly polished Secret Service brethren.