#BookReview The Diplomat’s Wife by Michael Ridpath @CorvusBooks @ReadersFirst1

The Diplomat's WifeAbout the Book

To love, honour, and betray…

1936: Devastated by the death of her beloved brother Hugh, Emma seeks to keep his memory alive by wholeheartedly embracing his dreams of a communist revolution. But when she marries an ambitious diplomat, she must leave her ideals behind and live within the confines of embassy life in Paris and Nazi Berlin. Then one of Hugh’s old comrades reappears, asking her to report on her philandering husband, and her loyalties are torn.

1979: Emma’s grandson, Phil, dreams of a gap-year tour of Cold War Europe, but is nowhere near being able to fund it. So when his beloved grandmother determines to make one last trip to the places she lived as a young diplomatic wife, and to try to solve a mystery that has haunted her since the war, he jumps at the chance to accompany her.

But their journey takes them to darker, more dangerous places than either of them could ever have imagined…

Format: Paperback (368 pages)           Publisher: Corvus
Publication date: 4th February 2021 Genre: Mystery

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My Review

Phil’s plan to spend the summer of 1979 hitchhiking across Europe with a pal, chatting up girls turns into an incident-filled adventure with his grandmother, Emma. It’s certainly a little more eventful than her description of it as ‘a little trip around Europe to revisit old times’ would suggest. But then Emma is not your conventional grandmother. For the wife of a former diplomat, she’s delightfully un-diplomatic when it comes to expressing her opinions and speaking her mind. As Phil reflects later, “He imagined her as a young diplomat’s wife confounding all who met her, diplomats and spymasters, throughout Europe”.

I enjoyed the dual time structure, switching between 1979 and the 1930s, with Emma gradually revealing to Phil her experiences in Paris and Berlin. I particularly liked the sections in which the reader experiences through Emma’s eye the atmosphere of pre-war Paris – the diplomatic parties, the Embassy politics, rubbing shoulders with artistic and literary luminaries such as Marc Chagall, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. I also found it fascinating to see the contrast Emma observes between pre-war and post-war Germany, now separated by the Berlin Wall.

For someone supposedly familiar with the novels of John le Carré some of Phil’s actions seemed a little naive, allowing himself to fall into traps that seemed fairly obvious to me. However, at other times, he proved himself quick-witted and resourceful. His steadfast devotion to his grandmother made theirs a touching partnership, even if it emerges she’s not been entirely truthful about her past – or her present, come to that.

For fans of spy thrillers, there are all the features you would expect: coded messages, emergency contact procedures and counter-surveillance measures. And for readers who like a bit of action, there are also some moments of melodrama. The currency of espionage is betrayal, lies, and more lies and there’s plenty of that here. I certainly felt some sympathy for Phil as he wonders just what to believe and who to trust. I confess I was rather more interested in Phil’s and Emma’s journey into her past than I was with the covert mission Phil finds himself entrusted with which definitely ventures into John le Carré territory, recalling the reveal at the end of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

A search for answers, a quest for justice and a story of love, loss and betrayal, The Diplomat’s Wife combines an eventful road trip across Cold War era Europe with all the ingredients of a wartime espionage thriller.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Corvus and Readers First.

In three words: Intriguing, dramatic, suspenseful

Try something similar: City of Spies by Mara Timon

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Michael RidpathAbout the Author

Before becoming a writer, Michael Ridpath used to work as a bond trader in the City of London. After writing several financial thrillers, which were published in over 30 languages, he began a crime series featuring the Icelandic detective Magnus Jonson. He has also written five stand-alone thrillers, the latest of which is The Diplomat’s Wife. He lives in London. (Photo credit: Twitter profile)

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Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton #BookReview

Then We Take Berlin AudioAbout the Book

John Holderness, known to most as ‘Wilderness’, comes of age during World War II in Stepney, breaking into houses with his grandfather.

After the war, Wilderness is recruited as MI5’s resident ‘cat burglar’ and finds himself in Berlin, involved with schemes in the booming black market that put both him and his relationships in danger.

In 1963 it is a most unusual and lucrative request that persuades Wilderness to return – to smuggle someone under the Berlin Wall and out of East Germany. But this final scheme may prove to be one challenge too far…

Format: Audiobook (15h 16m) Publisher: Oakhill Publishing
Publication date: 2014              Genre: Historical Fiction, Thriller

Find Then We Take Berlin (Joe Wilderness, #1) on Goodreads

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My Review

I was first introduced to the books of John Lawton when I read Friends and Traitors, part of his Inspector Troy series. As seems to be my habit, I came to the series late (it is the eighth book in the series) and I’ve been meaning to catch up with earlier books ever since. So when I came across Hammer To Fall, the third book in his Joe Wilderness series, on Readers First and was fortunate enough to win a copy, I was determined not to make the same mistake. I spotted a copy of the second book, The Unfortunate Englishman, in my local Oxfam bookshop and used an Audible credit to purchase this book so I could start the series from the beginning.

The first thing I would say is I think the blurb on Goodreads reveals way too much of the plot so the book description above is a much shorter version from Amazon. And, although I enjoyed Then We Take Berlin, I wasn’t entirely a fan of its structure. At times, it seemed like (at least) three different books all rolled into one. (I see I made a similar comment in my review of Friends and Traitors.)

Then We Take Berlin opens in 1963 as Joe Holderness travels to New York to be offered a job by a colleague of Frank, a buddy from his days in Berlin after WW2. I enjoyed Joe’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the sights of New York for the first time. The job he’s offered will involve him returning to Berlin and making use of his knowledge of that city. However, it will be a long time before the reader learns more about what Frank and Joe got up to in post-war Berlin and even longer until the mission Joe is offered takes place.

Instead the book goes back in time to 1941 to reveal Joe’s wartime childhood, including his experiences at the hands of a violent father. Events occur which mean Joe is brought up by his grandfather, Abner, and Abner’s girlfriend, Merle. It’s during this time that Joe is tutored in the dubious skills that will prove to be of such value in the future. Later, after the war has ended, he’s called up for National Service and Joe’s facility with languages is spotted by the British Secret Service. The result sees him embark upon an entirely different kind of education.

Then in what I thought was one of the most powerful sections of the book, the story moves to Germany and introduces a new character – Nell. Evacuated during the war from her home in Berlin to live with her uncle, the end of the war brings her by chance to the site of a wartime atrocity. Using her powers of persuasion and a few untruths, she gains work as an interpreter for the Allied forces and begins documenting the identities of survivors. She is nevertheless determined to return home to Berlin because, as she frequently says, “I am a Berliner”.

Eventually the story of Joe’s exploits in post-war Berlin takes centre stage as he and some comrades with connections in the right places take advantage of the flourishing black market. But have they got in over their heads? There’s an impressive amount of detail about the Berlin of the time which is clearly the product of a lot of research.

As the book reaches its climax we’re back in the year 1963 and Joe finally undertakes, albeit with reservations, the job he’s been contracted to do. Events move along at pace and woven into the story is an iconic moment in history that takes place in West Berlin. The author gives Nell a pivotal role in this, as signalled in the opening chapter. The last few chapters of the book are full of tension and the ending leaves enough loose ends to make a sequel irresistible.

Although only around 400 pages, the book has a lot of chapters, many of which are extremely short. Having taken a quick peek at my copy of The Unfortunate Englishman, I see that it also has many short chapters so this must be a deliberate style choice on the part of the author. The audiobook version has over two hundred chapters and I’m guessing its narrator, Lewis Hancock, must have been pleased when it was finally time to say “Chapter 206”. Talking of the narration, Lewis Hancock does a great job coping with the different accents required – Russian, German, American, etc. – although I did have difficulty at times recognising it was Nell speaking.

Then We Take Berlin is an entertaining spy thriller with a charismatic central character and, despite my reservations about its structure, I definitely intend to read the next two books in the series at some point.

In three words: Intricate, intriguing, atmospheric

Try something similar: The Swiss Spy by Alex Gerlis

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About the Author

John Lawton is a producer/director in television who has spent much of his time interpreting the USA to the English, and occasionally vice versa. He has worked with Gore Vidal, Neil Simon, Scott Turow, Noam Chomsky, Fay Weldon, Harold Pinter and Kathy Acker. He thinks he may well be the only TV director ever to be named in a Parliamentary Bill in the British House of Lords as an offender against taste and balance. He has also been denounced from the pulpit in Mississippi as a `Communist,’ but thinks that less remarkable.

He spent most of the 90s in New York – among other things attending the writers’ sessions at The Actors’ Studio under Norman Mailer – and has visited or worked in more than half the 50 states. Since 2000 he has lived in the high, wet hills of Derbyshire England, with frequent excursions into the high, dry hills of Arizona and Italy.

He is the author of 1963, a social and political history of the Kennedy-Macmillan years, eight thrillers in the Troy series and a stand-alone novel, Sweet Sunday.  In 1995 the first Troy novel, Black Out, won the WH Smith Fresh Talent Award. In 2006 Columbia Pictures bought the fourth Troy novel Riptide. In 2007 A Little White Death was a New York Times notable.

In 2008 he was one of only half a dozen living English writers to be named in the London Daily Telegraph‘s`50 Crime Writers to Read before You Die.’ He has also edited the poetry of DH Lawrence and the stories of Joseph Conrad. He is devoted to the work of Franz Schubert, Cormac McCarthy, Art Tatum and Barbara Gowdy. (Bio credit: Publisher author page)

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