TARGET CHURCHILL by Warren Adler and James C. Humes

20 05 2015

Target Churchill coverThe story opens with a vivid description of Beria’s NKVD men replacing the SS in the wake of Zhukov’s race across eastern Europe and into Germany: the one quite as bad as, perhaps even worse than, the other. General Dimitrov, a Georgian like Beria (and Stalin) has spotted someone he thinks might be useful among the SS men they are executing en masse (no POWs here!) – an SS Obersturmbannfuhrer and marksman named Franz Mueller, who is also a US citizen. Dimitrov tests his commitment by setting him to shoot two dozen of his erstwhile SS comrades and, that done, recruits him and sends him off to Washington to live quietly and await orders – just another one of Beria’s countless moles spread out around the world.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled Churchill (having lost the UK election to Atlee, who is, in Churchill’s view, soft on “Good old Uncle Jo” Stalin) has received an invitation to receive an honorary doctorate and make a speech at a minor American university in President Truman’s home state. Believing as he does that Stalin and his cohorts represent quite as great a threat to peace and freedom as Hitler ever did – though very few people agree with him – Churchill decides to sieze the opportunity of a widely publicised event (Truman will be there on the platform with him) to warn the world about Stalin and communism as he once warned them about Hitler and nazism.

He composes one of his most famous speeches – it is the speech in which he introduces the phrase “the Iron Curtain” to posterity – but it is all to be kept under wraps until it is delivered. He does not want the Russians upset and Truman embarrassed in advance (Truman and Stalin are still oficially allies). However, the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington (the man who runs the show) is a certain Donald Maclean (click on the name if it doesn’t ring a bell) and Maclean arranges matters so that his master in Moscow (Beria) receives a copy of the speech long enough in advance for the mole (now Frank Miller) to be activated: Target – Churchill.

I have probably given away more of the plot than I should, but it doesn’t matter, you can get all this and more from the blurb and the many reviews around. What matters is the detail, especially the bringing to life of Churchill as he was in 1946, immediately after the end of the war. Revered throughout the world (where he wasn’t reviled) yet rejected in his own country and out of power, but certainly not impotent, for the pen is mightier than the sword and a great wordsmith (“the greatest wordsmith of the century”) could still compose speeches that would alter history. Which was why, in the view of the Russians, he had to be silenced.

HIghly recommended for all lovers of WWII fiction





MARIANA LA LOCA by Jim Munro

12 05 2015

The review now, as promised in my last post.

MarianaLL coverIn 1374, in the still very Moorish south of Spain, a girl is sold into slavery. After various adventures including a shipwreck, two years in a bordel in Cuenca and an encounter with a lamia, she is freed by her new master, a rich Moor whose life she has saved – but on condition that she takes with her the mysterious young slave-girl Malika and returns her to her home which (from what Malika tells them) seems to have been somewhere in the north of Spain or the south of France.

First, though, they make their way back across Andalucia to the village near Cartagena where Mariana grew up, and there she meets an elderly Scottish knight, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, come in search of her late father, who was himself a Scot in exile. He takes her under his wing and they head north together, first in search of Malika’s family, then, she hopes and dreams, to Paris.

To start with a minor gripe, in the early part of the book we follow Mariana, and simultaneously, in alternating chapters, we accompany Sir Farquhar as he makes his way down through Spain in search of his old friend Sir Andrew MacElpin, Mariana’s father. This switching back and forth of viewpoint is something I always find off-putting; however, once they meet there is no more of that and the story flows on ‘unputdownably’.

My own favourite parts of the book are, first, Mariana’s recollections of her childhood by the Mar Menor, a ‘little sea’ in the south-east of Spain, where her Moorish grandmother, Sebah, taught her to dance and she studied all kinds of arcane subjects with her ‘uncle’ Rabbi Yacoub, while the rest of the time she spent swimming in the sea, all alone. Secondly, the period they spent in Avignon, when they had left Spain behind, and Mariana found herself for the first time on the run from the powers that be, which in Avignon, then the seat of the Popes, meant the Church, and the Church meant the Inquisition.

There are scenes of sex and violence, but no more so than in most books set in that period. Life was like that. (When wasn’t it?!) But there are also scenes such as those where we meet secret Cathars in the north of Spain and Blanche, the anything-but-orthodox ex-Queen of France, in Avignon, that bring home to us some of the most mysterious and tantalising aspects of the late Middle Ages.

Mariana La Loca is one of those stories you read fast the first time, then later, at home now in this very different world, you read it again and this time you savour it to the full.





Mariana la Loca

10 05 2015

Sex slavery is nothing new. It is probably one of the oldest forms of merchandising on the planet. In the south of Spain in the spring of 1372 one young girl of mixed descent (her father was a Scot in exile) was left an  orphan and sold into slavery. She was fourteen and known as Mariana la Loca, but her real name was Marian MacElpin.

Mariana la Loca is a rewrite of the first Mariana medieval mystery, which I had reviewed very positively while the author and I were colleagues on the late, lamented MedievalMysteries.com. When he asked me to read this completely new and retitled edition I was delighted to do so – though naturally concerned. I had liked it as it was! But I needn’t have worried. It is the same story but it reads faster and some of the excessive detail on the subject of Cathars and the Magdalene Heresy has been heavily pruned. It struck me, too, that the emphasis now is more on Mariana (Maryam) herself rather than on “the medieval mystery” – the mysterious child she is charged with restoring to her home and family. Better, because it is Mariana we are interested in and shall be following in the sequels

(I’ll be posting a full review on this site in a the next couple of days.)





THE ICARUS PLOT by Jenny Schwartz

29 03 2015

Icarus Plot cover

I have to say that I prefer to review books written by complete strangers. Knowing I am expected to comment on or even write a review of a book written by a friend or acquaintance fills me with trepidation. I like that word, but it is not strong enough. Fills me with horror.

So it was with trepidation (not horror, for we are only BL acquaintances, not friends – though I should like to be) that I finally began Jenny’s The Icarus Plot after it had been gathering metaphorical dust in my Kindle for several months. And I knew within the first few lines that Jenny is the real McCoy. After a couple of pages I was comparing her favourably with Philip Pullman. I read the story straight off – it is not long, more a novella than a novel – and went to bed happy. Happy to have discovered another author whose other books I can now look forward to reading, and happy with the world: it is a story that leaves you happy.

Thanks, Jenny.





THE WITCH OF NAPOLI by

10 03 2015

Witch of Napoli

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you

A young reporter named Tomasso publishes a convincing photo of an Italian medium, Alexandra Poverelli, levitating a table, and it causes such a stir that the scientist/psychiatrist Professor Camillo Lombardi comes all the way to Naples to investigate the claim. To his astonishment, she proves she can do far more than simply levitate tables.

Result? She and the young reporter, Tomasso, who has fallen in love with her, are taken on a tour, first of Italy and then of the capitals of Europe, by the wealthy Professor Lombardi. Many are convinced by her. Others are either sceptical or fanatically against her – including the representative of an English society which investigates mediums, a repulsive character bent on engineering Alexandra’s downfall.

The novel is based on the life of Eusapia Palladino, who is dismissed in Wikipedia as a fraud (but then so is homeopathy!). However, in this story her powers are certainly genuine. That she can and does accomplish seemingly supernatural feats is not in doubt. The only question is how. Is she really in communication with the dead, or is there some other quite different explanation?

An interesting point is that this (the whole “medium” thing) is often seen and presented – especially in its late 19th-century context – as part of the supposed war between science and religion. In fact the Church is quite as much her enemy as the scientific establishment. More so. Many scientists did – and do – have an open mind (and so they should, for that after all is the scientific method), her sponsor, Professor Camillo Lombardi, being such a one, whereas no one from the Church (as represented in this novel, at least) showed any sign of an open mind.

It is an enthralling story, and it was a brilliant decision to use young Tomasso as the narrator, to watch it all unfold through his eyes, the eyes of one who loved the much-abused but still tempestuous Alexandra for who she was and not what she could do.





Magnus (review)

6 02 2015




GHOSTLY MURDERS by Paul Doherty

29 01 2015

Ghostly MurdersThis is the fourth and in some ways the best yet of Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Ghostly Murders is in fact the Poor Priest’s tale (his other tale) a ghost story in which two brothers, both young, both priests, get caught up in the aftermath of a horrifying crime involving some Templars who were fleeing for their lives at a time when all the world had turned against them.

But of course, before that tale can begin, the pilgrims must settle down for the night. And this particular night they find themselves caught in an evening mist close to dangerous marshes on which they can see lights (“corpse candles”) flickering in the growing darkness, so they decide to stop in a nearby village. Only the village is deserted, and has been since the Black Death thirty years earlier, and not only deserted but downright eerie, and not made any less so by the pilgrims themselves.

‘Let’s pray,’ said Mine Host, ‘to St Thomas à Becket whose blessed bones we go to venerate at Canterbury!’

The Miller gave a loud fart in answer, making the Carpenter snigger and giggle. Nevertheless, the pilgrims grouped closer. The Summoner moved his fat little horse behind that of the Franklin. He was not just interested in the Franklin’s costly silk purse, white as the morning milk. Oh no, the Summoner smiled to himself: he, like some others, was increasingly fascinated by this motley group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury in the year of Our Lord 1389. All seemed to be acquainted with each other and the Summoner definitely knew the Franklin. They had met many years ago on a blood-soaked island. He was sure of that, as he was sure that the Franklin had had a hand in his father’s death. He would have liked to have talked to his colleague the Pardoner but he was now suspicious for the Summoner had recently discovered that the Franklin and the Pardoner were close friends. Indeed, this cunning man, with his bag full of relics and the bones of saints slung on a string round his neck, was certainly not what he claimed to be.

Behind the Summoner, the Friar, nervous of the cloying mist, plucked at the harp slung over his saddle horn. As he played, the Friar glanced furtively at the Monk riding alongside him. The Friar closed his eyes and strummed at the harp strings, calling up a little ditty he had learnt, anything to drive away the fears. He did not like the Monk sitting so arrogantly on his brown-berry palfrey: that smooth, fat face, those dark, soulless eyes and that smile, wolfish, the eye-teeth hanging down like jagged daggers. Who was the Monk? Why was the Knight so wary of him? And the latter’s son? The young, golden-haired Squire, he always kept an eye on the Monk, hand on the pommel of his sword, as if he expected the Monk to launch a sudden assault upon his father, the Knight. Was the Monk, the Friar wondered, one of those strigoi mentioned by the Knight in his tale? Did the Monk belong to the Undead? Those damned souls who wandered the face of the earth, finding their sustenance in human blood?

The whole setting reminds the Poor Priest of another Kentish village, Scawsby, and when prevailed upon to tell a tale he tells them of the strange events in Scawsby during his time there.

In fact, he tells them, it had all begun much earlier, in 1308, in the reign of the present king’s grandfather. A group of Templar Knights, fleeing from London to the coast, had been lured into just such treacherous marshes on just such a misty evening and there, mired and helpless, set upon by robbers led by the local lord of the manor and the parish priest, intent on seizing the Templar treasure.

‘We have been trapped,’ one of the knights whispered. ‘They have led us into a marsh.’

‘There must be paths!’ Sir William exclaimed. ‘Just like the one we are standing on.’ He grasped his sword tighter. ‘The Virgin, the Veronica?’ […]

An arrow whipped out of the darkness and took him full in the shoulder.

All the Templars are killed, but as he dies, their leader, Sir William Chasny, shouts “in English, in Latin, in French, ‘We shall be watching you! We shall always be watching you!‘”

Seventy years later, following the suicide of the previous incumbent, a new young priest, Philip Trumpington, comes to the village with his brother, Edmund. There, he is confronted by the past, for the church is full of ghosts, both good (the murdered Templars) and bad (especially the ghost of Romanel, the priest who organised the massacre), and full of voices whispering ‘Spectamus te, semper spectamus te! We are watching you, we are always watching you!’

As if the ghosts were not enough, there is also an attack on the village by a band of French marauders. But why on this small inland village? Can they too be after the Templar treasure?

Another of Doherty’s seemingly inexhaustible stream of wonderful minor characters makes an appearance in this book: the coffin woman. Read it, if only for her!

She is old and seems to know more about what happened seventy years ago than she is telling. What was her part in all this, wonders Philip.

The tension builds as Doherty skillfully blends his three story lines: the pilgrims, Philip and his brother, and their predecessor Romanel.

But unlike Romanel, the Poor Priest is not interested in “treasure on earth”. Will he therefore prove immune to the evil that has corrupted the souls of and led to the death of so many others?








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