American Spy

Eek it’s already mid-October! I don’t know why, but this year I am all for the delights of Halloween. Usually at this time of year we have Hull Fair in my city, which we have held here every year since the 13th Century, only stopping for the World Wars…thats until Covid stuck it’s oar in! It’s a pretty big deal for my local neighbourhood not to smell of candy floss, doughnuts, burgers and chips, and not to hear the screams, shouts and laughter of little kids and big kids alike, happy hardcore dance music and not to have the sky illuminated with flashing lights right now. This week is usually spent eating my way into a food coma, gorging on brandy snap, German sausages, sugared donuts and chips (not necessarily in that order!) so it feels very strange to be without it. I think thats why this year I’m perhaps more excited for Halloween than ever before, I’ll definitely be dressing the outside of my house with pumpkins!

This weekend I’ll be spent unwinding after another manic work week, I’m really looking forward to finishing my current read which is a debut novel, its so intriguing. But.. onto the my ‘just read’ that I’m sharing with you this week!

AMERICAN SPY, BY LAUREN WILKINSON

When the opportunity to read a kick ass female spy novel arose from my rare bird book club options, I was clicking CHOOSE BOOK as fast as I possibly could. I LOVE spy novels, particularly the Milo Weaver Novels by Olen Steinhauer, they’re a particular favourite of mine (The Tourist is one you may have heard of, it was made into an awesome film). My favourite thing about spy stories is that they are 100% about the main protagonist. The storyline is secondary. The main character is usually so brave, living on the edge of possible death and discovery. They are usually smart strategists, athletes living a fast paced life off the grid, but usually with chips in their cups. They’re imperfect people with imperfect lives and usually from a dark or lonely background that turned them to the lives that they have now.

When I read the blurb for American Spy and all of the praise it received (I mean Barack Obama loved it!) I honestly rushed to open the pages. This is the story of a Black FBI agent in 1989 America, in a typically white, male dominated environment. I seriously wanted to love this book. It’s not often that we get a female protagonist in the role of a spy, and so I was really interested to read how the character would handle both sexist and racial discrimination and stereotyping that may arise and how she would overcome those challenges to be the kick ass spy she knows she can be.

The opening chapter had me gripped and I was beyond excited to read further. It opens with our main character, Marie in modern day. She awakens in the middle of the night to find an intruder in her house, ready to kill her. She stops them in their tracks. But an added element.. she has children and those children are in the house and just discovered their Mum after the attack. Who was this mysterious hitman sent to kill her? Would her children be safe? Where would they go to hide?! I was full of questions.

The book is written from a journal perspective to her sons. I really enjoyed this at first as it takes us through the past without any chore and explained a lot of background context. I did perhaps feel that a spy wouldn’t have journaled their secrets, but I was willing to overlook this for the character background I was getting.


For the first half of the book I loved the pacing and was super interested in our character, her family and what secrets she might be keeping. I loved meetings that Marie had with her informants, I could picture the scenes in the diner she held them and she felt like a woman in control. It was fast paced, I was learning so much about Marie and her challenges as a reader. I was beginning to understand the chinks in her armour and what made her tick, and I was with her through the ups downs and career concerns. But I’m afraid to say that the story began to fall in my estimations about half way through, when it should have been getting interesting.

This review won’t contain spoilers, but lets just say that the middle of a spy novel is usually when things get super juicy. The spy tends to finds themselves in some kind of sticky situation or danger that they have to use their cunning and their intellect to get out of or to get the target anyway. It’s normally full of suspense and tension and you don’t know (besides the 100s of pages you have left as a clue…) if the character will come out unscathed. I was so excited to read about how the character would be a true feminist and show the world what a young black woman can do for the FBI. I was expecting Marie to shove two fingers up to gender stereotypes and prove that a female spy is capable of achieving her aims using her intelligence and logic instead of her sexuality – of which she’d originally scoffed at when this was suggested as a tactic to her.

I’m afraid none of that thrill and suspense really happened, and as a character our spy let me down. I understood that the character of Marie isn’t perfect and thats usually what makes a great spy character, but this one felt more ‘lack of character development’ than ‘character with emotional issues’. I understand that this is a debut novel, so don’t wish to be too harsh; but there were some seriously odd relationships that I just didn’t understand and that werent explained, and there’s a particular character that Marie develops strong feelings for, which is completely at odds with the relationships she has with others that we know about from her journals. It’s also one she should have the strength to avoid becoming attached to. Marie feels very very young in those pages, and I felt that she had been effectively complaining about not being taken seriously by the FBI, and then proving to us why she shouldn’t have been. Disappointed.

Marie was smart and one step ahead in some respects but then proved to be the complete opposite in others. She seems a little unhinged when the story takes a turn, and rather than plotting carefully and deliberately a plan to seek revenge for her sister (who plays a strong silent role), she goes a bit Carrie Mathison on us and acts on impulse rather than planning. I did however enjoy this section as it was more of the fast pacing I was hoping for, even if it did kind of feel like it came out of nowhere.

CAN’T PUT IT DOWN RATING: 3.5/5

I’m actually majorly conflicted with this review and rating. I did really enjoy the book, I enjoyed the background story and I was flipping pages over so fast in some sections of the book. The opening was perfect, I was in awe for 50% of the book. I think the problem for me is that it was perhaps a little overhyped overall – a risk for a debut as you then expect polished perfection and forget its the author’s first novel!

Ultimately though, strategic and cunning spying from a kick ass female which is what I picked this book up for– just didn’t happen. Instead she played to the stereotype and far too much happened conveniently. The author wrote in so many characters that could have been explored so much further; and then also wrote in 1 or 2 that I didn’t even understand their importance and could have probably not even been included. The premise to this story was excellent; but I feel it went a little too ‘broken character living in the past’ and introspective for my liking; it damaged the pacing and ultimately the character. I also couldn’t see the link between the strong and dangerous gun weilding character we read about in modern day in the opening chapters and the character we read about thereafter, it felt like something had happened that we never read about.

I’d still strongly suggest you pick this book up if you’re a fan of reflective story telling that explores emotions and relationships; but not so much if you’re looking for big thrills and danger stories.

Where to Buy:

Amazon: £7.19

Waterstones: £7.49

WASHED DOWN WITH

I ordered the Beanies Autumn Stash direct from their website and so far I’ve only tried this toasted marshmallow. It is amazing! It’s got a really nice roasted nuttiness to the flavour yet its quite creamy with just a dash of milk. Definitely recommend and perfect for the cool cosy months!

Right Readers, thats it for this week!! Let me know in the comments your thoughts on this one. What interests you about it or doesn’t catch your attention? Will you be picking it up

Until the next chapter,

Emma,

X0

Socials: @papyrusandpeppermint

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