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Emerson College professor Steve Himmer’s new novel Fram is about Oscar, a “minor bureaucrat” in the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, a government agency tasked with completely imaginary work: inventing “discoveries” in the Arctic, creating records relating to their use, and recording these in reports and files in their basement office somewhere in Washington. For example, “Perhaps a town’s population had boomed—was a streak of silver discovered and a spoon factory built? Or perhaps a coal vein ran dry and the families of miners packed up and left it behind. Generations of prognosticators could return to the same parts of the Arctic and find something new . . . .” Their work is carried on under an old lightbulb with a “cloth-wrapped cord.” “The bulb wasn’t bright, but its wan glow was faithful.”

So is Oscar. His cover story is that he works on creating more efficient filing systems for the government, but “polar fever” as his wife Julia calls it, extends into his personal life, as he reads again and again about the great expeditions North and obsessively watches “Pole cam” on his phone. He is quietly dedicated to the Arctic, day and night.

One day Oscar’s diligent work is interrupted by unprecedented news: he and his new partner, Alexi, have been summoned by their director with orders to travel to the Arctic themselves. And this is where the novel begins to feel a lot like walking on ice, solid but unstable – the reader slips and slides, in one moment upright, slightly off balance the next. I never quite wiped out, but I was never absolutely certain where I stood.

Oscar goes home baffled and unsure of this mysterious trip. Julia isn’t home, and he muses on how they’ve grown apart, and how dearly he holds their private jokes and memories, the shared stories that make a marriage its own little ship on stormy seas. He notes how difficult it is, lying to Julia about what he does.

And the next morning, Oscar is seized. From there, his journey North is confusing and strange. He’s never sure who is BIP and who is not, who might be trustworthy and to whom he should deliver an envelope marked “Northern Branch.”  Spy-like figures, who readers first see on the Metro when Oscar leaves work the fateful day he learns of his journey, appear on trains and boats and in the snow. There’s a gunbattle aboard a ship. A mysterious hunter/terrorist who travels South, bent on destroying BIP’s work. Conspiracy theorists who posit online that BIP is a sham, balanced by hints that the “discoveries” are not in fact invented at all, but rather their invention is invented.

Himmer aims his considerable dark wit at government bureaucracy, at “big data,” at murky virtual communities, even at extreme eating competitions and Bond-like villains – no one escapes skewering but Oscar, who is “fast as a lightbulb,” and seems to stand for honesty and diligence, hard work and faith, trust and loyalty. And even Oscar is slightly ridiculous, a lackey who never wavers from the make-believe of his own work even when his trip spins out of control, a grownup who spends all his spare time focused on his boyhood obsession, a man who misses the closeness he enjoyed with his wife even as he’s failed to really notice her own secrecy for years. These parts of the book resonated most with me – I enjoyed Oscar’s recollections of moments in his marriage that add up to a life together. I was rooting for him to return to Julia and make things right again. But that, like so much else in Fram, seemed uncertain with every new development.

Should a book, even one so reliant on polar seas and pack ice, leave its readers feeling so off-balance? Fram defies category; it doesn’t have the pacing or predictability of a mainstream thriller, nor the singular focus of a satire. Interspersed with the main narrative are very brief chapters that reference the history of Arctic exploration that Oscar holds so dear. Other slivers of story reveal glimpses of what else might be happening as Oscar is caught up in some strange intrigue. All of this adds to the off-kilter feeling.

But I wanted to finish Fram, the tilt-a-whirl sensation was not off putting, and I found the end intriguing rather than frustrating, even though I can’t say I’m entirely sure what happened. It’s a book you’ll want to discuss with someone – if your book group likes to try something unusual, this would be a good choice. Spending several hours reading Himmer’s fine prose is always a pleasure. If you’ve resolved to read something different this year, try Fram.

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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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