Review of “Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook: A Novel” by Celia Rees

from goodreads

I recently joined a book club as a means of getting out of the house in the time of plague and exposing myself to books I wouldn’t ordinarily read. The one below is the first example.

Plot:

Following the end of WWII, Edith Graham decides to use her experience as a school teacher and become an education officer with the Control Commission, which administers the British area of occupation of Germany. She views herself as having sat out during the war, taking care of her mother. This is her way of contributing.
In her thirties and unmarried, unassuming Edith hardly seems to be spy material.

Or perhaps she’s perfect spy material, as no one will look at her twice. At least that’s what her cousin Leo (an erstwhile lover… ICK) thinks when he enlists her to help track down another former lover, now a notorious Nazi and SS member, Kurt von Stavenow. A friend, Dori, also wants to locate von Stavenow to determine what role he might have played in the disappearances of four young British women (also spies) during the war. She and Dori devise a code they can send through recipes. Since swapping recipes was a common enough practice, they figure it can fly under the radar, so to speak. They understand their mail will be read.

Dori wants to bring von Stavenow to justice, which is not quite what Leo and those he works for want. Von Stavenow has expert knowledge in medicine and genetics that could prove useful in the post-war era.

Before she even sets foot on the continent, Edith is serving competing interests.

Thoughts:

One of the things I found delightful about this book was the use of recipes to transmit coded messages. These were hidden not from the Nazis but from other intelligence agents, supposedly on the same “side.” Leo and his group want to serve the Allies in a post-war anti-Communist world. The action takes place before the Soviets explode their first atomic weapon. Post-war Germany is in shambles but not yet divided into East and West Germany.

There is a profusion of characters. One of the members of the book club suggested a list of characters would be helpful in keeping them straight. A particular reason they’re hard to keep apart is that they’re all spies!

Because the infrastructure and public transportation are not functioning reliably, Edith has a driver to take her on her rounds of the different schools (the Control Commission must have thought highly of their Education Officers). The driver seems to have an intelligence background. How far does she trust him?

One of the things that annoys me about the book—other than everyone and his brother being spies—is that Edith seems awfully talkative for her profession. On one occasion, she sees the direct results of her yakking. She is duly horrified and repentant—to the point of contemplating going back to England—but not to the point of giving up yakking.

The character of Kurt von Stavenow seems inspired by the life of Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death of Auschwitz. The match is imperfect, of course. To the best of my knowledge, the Allies were never interested in Mengele’s “expertise.”

Each chapter opens with a recipe that reflects the people or events in the chapter. They’re not necessarily to be made. For example, chapter 13 features “Refugee Potato pancakes,” which consist of potato peelings, a handful of flour, and salt and pepper. The woman who gave Edith the “recipe” is a Jewish refugee, complete with a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm. Edith goes to bat for her in one of several do-gooding episodes.

Despite a few annoyances, this book is engaging because the reader cares about Edith. Edith is, at times, naïve, but she is sincere and honest. The thought of her former lover—whom she at first believes to be basically good—becoming a Nazi is an affront to her personally and to all decency. She can’t let it slide. This makes her real and sympathetic to the reader.

Bio:

Author Celia Rees (b. 1949) writes mostly YA, speculative fiction, and historical fiction for younger audiences. Her titles include Witch Child (shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize), Sorceress (shortlisted for the Whitbread—now Costa—Children’s Book Award), Pirates! (shortlisted for W. H. Smith Award), Sovay, and Glass Town Wars.



Title: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook: A Novel
Author: Celia Rees
First published: May 14, 2020
Genre: historical fiction, spy fiction
Approx. 500 pages

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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