A well-crafted spy novel examines the perils of espionage’s foundation in personal relationships.

AN UNLIKELY SPY

The intriguing story of a young woman’s espionage career during World War II weaves in a critique of the British class system.

What sort of people got recruited to be spies by Britain’s famed MI5 intelligence agency during World War II? This absorbing historical novel makes clear they weren’t much like James Bond. Evelyn Varley is a restless young woman living in London in 1939, working for a cosmetics company and making no use at all of her Oxford degree in German, when she’s invited for a rather mysterious job interview. She rapidly goes from typing up reports to infiltrating a group of Nazi sympathizers—and discovering a disturbing personal connection. Starford takes an interesting tack with Evelyn’s background. The daughter of a clerk and a homemaker, she attended a posh boarding school as a scholarship girl, which meant she would either suffer bullies or remake herself in the images of the upper-class girls who harassed her. She chose the latter and did it so well she got into Oxford and became a sort of second daughter to the family of her best friend, Sally—a family that’s one of the wealthiest in England. When Evelyn goes to work for MI5, she discovers others who, like her, are outsiders in the rigid British class system but have found ways to assimilate by assuming an identity, an essential part of spycraft. As the war looms, the challenge for Evelyn is assimilating with people she finds abhorrent. Most of the novel is set in the years just before and after Britain’s entry into the war. Occasional chapters flash-forward to 1948, when Evelyn is trying to put her life back together after some unnamed catastrophe and tentatively falling in love. The book is rich with historical details, right down to clothing styles and furnishings. The plot sometimes slows amid those details, but most of the book is well paced. The novel’s depiction of Evelyn’s career is exciting, but it also suggests the human cost: No matter how skilled her performances, to those above her in the social hierarchy, she’s expendable.

A well-crafted spy novel examines the perils of espionage’s foundation in personal relationships.

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-303788-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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