Category Archives: Author-R

Review: Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley


I don’t know quite where to start this post.  Even though this book was incredibly enjoyable and highly uplifting, I’ve avoided writing anything about it because it was so darned good and I fear that anything I have to say about it is going to do it little justice.  But as Franklin Roosevelt himself said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’   My fear is off to the kitchen to make me a cup of tea so while it’s away, here goes.

I’m Australian and American history is not taught here in schools though it does occur at some universities.  When I was at university, I chose British politics and Middle Eastern politics to study so I know zip about American history.  I’d heard of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States in the 1940s or thereabouts, but only in the context of his visit to Australia during the war and that was about it.

But over the last few years, I’ve become greatly interested in American political history and the cause is rather an unusual one.  A few years ago I read a brilliant biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the English feminist, educator and thinker of the late eighteenth century.  The biography was by Lyndall Gordon, called Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a passionate and highly-researched account of Wollstonecraft’s life.

In her book, Gordon outlines how Mary in her early twenties started a school in the North London suburb of Newington Green.  It was the 1780s and Mary’s neighbours were dissenters and radicals, most notably the preacher Dr Richard Price, a radical intellectual and supporter of the American War of Independence who was to have a significant influence on Mary’s thought.  His published pamphlets on Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution were highly influential, the last being written for American revolutionary leaders such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin (an old friend of Price), John Adams and others.  Through her exposure to Price and his ideas, Wollstonecraft was able to develop her own ideas on education for children and women’s rights.

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BOOK REVIEW: At Risk by Stella Rimington


BOOK REVIEW: At Risk by Stella Rimington, fiction, Arrow books – Random House, paperback, 2005, 454 pages.

At Risk is a contemporary espionage novel written by the former head of Britain’s MI5, Stella Rimington.  It’s the first in a (so far) series of five which has at its centre, the determined Liz Carlyle, an MI5 operative working in London.

Rimington At RiskLiz works in the counter terrorism section and at the Monday morning meeting of the Joint Counter-Terrorist group, there are alarming reports that an Islamic Terror Syndicate is about to deploy an invisible — a terrorist who, because they are an ethnic native of a country, can cross that country’s borders unnoticed and infiltrate its institutions with ease.

In other words, a native Briton with terrorist inclinations is about to enter Britain to do something dastardly.

Couple this news with a report from one of Liz’s old agents that there is some kind of ‘drop off’ coming from Germany and you have the beginnings of a tense and intricate plot that gradually unfolds itself like a piece of origami — logical, precise and economical.

The action takes place in Norfolk.  Liz works with MI6, Special Branch and the armed forces, desperately trying to work out the specific time and location of the threat to English security.  It’s naturally a race against time and Rimington keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if Liz will win the day and who will be a casualty of that win.

There were many things that I liked about this book — a zippy plot, a breathtaking finish, and a thorough laying of groundwork in terms of who Liz is and where she’s come from.

But the thing I liked most was the particularly strong characterisation of Liz.  Rimington has said that Liz is partly autobiographical and partly based on women she has met during her career.  As a consequence, Liz is a cracker — strong, intelligent, unprepared to brook any resistance, occasionally funny, often humourless but steadfastly committed to her job (to wit, the clinical decision she makes to dump her boyfriend because he threatens her independence and potentially her career).  She also has to contend with being a woman in a predominantly male world and I enjoyed her prickliness and strident attempts to maintain her equal status.

Having now read two Stella Rimington/Liz Carlyle books, At Risk feels to be a stronger novel than Illegal Action, which I’ve reviewed previously.  It feels as though a great deal of planning has gone into At Risk and Rimington has ensured she has dotted all her ‘i’s and crossed all her ‘t’s — plotwise and characterwise, that is.  It’s a very thorough piece of work.

I ripped through this book in a couple of days and recommend it for its strong female protagonist and its smart, intelligent and pulse-racing take on latter day espionage.

BOOK REVIEW: Illegal Action by Stella Rimington


BOOK REVIEW: Illegal Action by Stella Rimington, fiction, Random House – Arrow books, paperback, 2007, 394 pages.

I’m still shirking my reading of A.S. Byatt’s, The Children’s Book.  I know the longer I leave it, the harder it will be to get back to it, but have you noticed that when you’re trying to avoid doing something you don’t really want to do, you become productive in other areas?

Well, I’ve become very productive in reading other novels.  Since beginning The Children’s Book, I’ve read four others, including Stella Rimington’s, Illegal Action.

Rimington, Illegal ActionI’ve been aware of Ms Rimington’s writing career for a while but only chased up one of her novels recently after watching the last series of the superb TV drama, Spooks.  It seems I can’t get enough of stories about British intelligence services running round London, defusing dramatic situations involving terrorists and spies.

Illegal Action, Stella Rimington’s third novel, is of that ilk.  It centres again on Liz Carlyle (the heroine of Rimington’s previous two novels) only this time Liz has been transferred from the Counter-Terrorism Section to the Counter-Espionage Section.  It’s viewed as a bit of a backwater because espionage finished with the end of the Cold War.  Didn’t it?

As Liz finds out, it didn’t.  There are more spies in London than ever before and she is soon working undercover in the Belgravian household of a Russian oligarch, trying to discover who might be trying to kill him.

Rimington worked for MI5 for 28 years and was Director General from 1992 to 1996 before trying her hand at writing.  As you’d expect from someone with her background, her knowledge of intelligence procedures and protocols is vast.  It permeates her writing and forms part of the strong background fabric of the novel.

Less expected were the subtle psychological insights into character and Rimington’s deft drawing of relationships between individuals and those individuals’ respective agencies, such as MI5, MI6 and the British Foreign Office.  There is comprehensive coverage without any of it being unnecessary or boring.

Liz Carlyle, as the main character, is likeable and competent, while secondary characters are neither black or white, but grey, which profoundly humanises them.  There is one villain who seems unremittingly evil but perhaps that’s how it is for assassins these days.  I wouldn’t know.

The plot is occasionally hard to follow simply because of the many characters involved, but it’s not War and Peace, and once you’ve figured out who’s who, it’s a sustaining read, with a suspenseful climax.

I enjoyed Illegal Action and will read more of the Liz Carlyle novels as they appear (there is a new one due out — a fifth — this year).  It’s not Spooks but until that show reappears, I’ll be happy to continue to read Rimington’s series.