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Spies (Heinemann Literature) [Hardcover]

3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

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Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars A visit down memory lane . . . Dec 14 2003
A man called Stephen travels down memory lane, remembering his childhood in London during the war. He and his friend, Keith, lived out many adventures, their imaginations coming alive. Upon his friend's words that his friend's mother was a German spy, the two boys set out to spy on her. What Stephen discovers will change the rest of his life. The book has a slow start. Many times I doubted that I would like the book because it seemed too slow and dull, however, by the end, I was glad I stuck with it. It's a touching story about the innocence of a child who is put into a situation no child belonged in. His fear and confusion was real throughout the book, and perhaps the most honest account of someone in his shoes. He was an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances. The main character wasn't a child "hero" like so often in books these days starring children. This book isn't about a boy saving the day. It is more a tragic story. The book did not grab me the way other books sometimes do. It was a bit vague and confusing at times. However, overall, it was a good read and would be worthy of discussion in any book group.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric, but doesn't really gel July 26 2003
First of all: Frayn is a good writer. Best known as a playwright, this is not a play trying to be a novel-- there is dialogue, yes, but also lots of description and atmosphere. I applaud him for knowing which medium this story demanded, and for his versatility and skills.
The six immortal words that change Stephen's life are his best friend Keith's "My mother is a German spy."
Of course, any adult reader doubts that right away, but Keith is so odd and creepy that as he and Stephen (the narrator) set to trailing his mother there is an awful sense of tension and looming tragedy.
It's impossible not to think of L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, if you've read it-- in that book likewise a man remembers being a child engaging in a mystery that was not what it seems. That book really does amount to heartbreak and inevitable tragedy. Partly that's because the adult reader understands what is going on better than the narrator.
In Frayn's novel, the older narrator has barely more insight than he did as a child-- and there's an irritating sense that things are being deliberately held back from the reader. The revelations, when we finally get to them, are not satisfying enough for me.
As a portrait of tension, suspicion and wartime paranoia, along with the awkwardness of adolescent friendships and loyalties, Frayn succeeds. But as a mystery, it's frustrating...the tension is both too much and not enough. The reader knows that whatever theory the boys come up with is wrong, and it takes too long to see that there is a mystery at all... so it never grabbed me with its urgency.
If you read it for the mood and not for the story, it is well written and worthwhile... for me it never really gelled.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A slow burn June 12 2003
I have to admit, I almost gave up on this book ninety pages in. For whatever reason, it just wasn't holding my interest. The story was only vaguely interesting and it went along at a rather mundane pace. But then, just when I thought I'd given up, something happened. The story started coming together, the characters and setting grew on me, and I discovered much to my pleasant surprise that I couldn't put it down. I raced to finish it and had to force myself not to glance down to the bottom of the next page to find out what was coming next.
This is a story of secrets and lies set in a tiny English village in the heart of World War Two. An innocent child's game of "spies" turns into an ugly and inevitably tragic tale of wartime recriminations and unrequited love with an ending to rival the surprising and equally devastating denouement of Ian McEwan's "Atonement."
Frayn's brilliance is subtle and exists mostly within the seemingly innocent yet insightful observations of his child narrator, Stephen Wheatley, through whose eyes the reader experiences the story.
I'm glad I persevered!
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By A Customer
Michael Frayn's "Spies", the 2002 Whitbread Prize winner, is a quintessentially English novel that recalls L P Hartley's classic "The Go Between". Both novels begin with an old man indulging in the queasily pleasurable habit of visiting the past when as a young boy he was innocent of the tragedy his childish detective games would set in motion for the adults and end with a stark recognition that resonates with an indescribable pain we feel for the ruined lives they have caused. The rush of familiar smells and the recollection of other childish secrets like a misspelled password trigger off a flood of memories for the adult Stephen Wheatley. These in turn become the catalyst for unravelling the secrets that underlie the mystery that consumed the boy Stephen and his playmate Keith one fateful summer.
Frayn flits skilfully between past to present but when we enter the world of the boy Stephen, we become child observers too. We don't have a head start in our understanding of what is happening among the adults because our senses are his. Even Keith's mother - like all mothers - doesn't have a name. The suspicious routines that preoccupy Keith's mother - her constant shuttling between home and her sister's or the post office, and her mysterious disappearance from sight every time she turns the corner - is shrouded in a mystery that deepens with vague hints of cruelty and abuse that only the adult Stephen is able to discern. Indeed, the relationship between Stephen and Keith is hardly a friendship, more an emblem of their class differences, which allow the middle class Keith to play leader to the socially inferior Stephen. In the same way, Keith's parents exude a distance and coolness that is slightly unnerving.
Frayn's characterisation is flawless.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Spies shows Frayn's brilliance
This novel is one of the highlights of Western civilization.

For some reason, Frayn hasn't won the accolades and big awards that Ian McEwan has. Read more
Published on April 21 2010 by Avid reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Almost Like a Film - Great!
Frayn took a simplistic wartime storyline and made it unfold for the reader like a film. The characterization comes alive with the needling of going through the visage between... Read more
Published on May 1 2004 by Trudy Taylor Marshall
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ambiguity of Childhood Memories
An old man struggles to recall a summer in his youth he spent living in a small English suburb during WWII. Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2004 by PhotoMom
4.0 out of 5 stars a wonderful read
Spies is a lovely, beautifully written novel about childhood, mysteries and memories. Don't read it if you're looking for high drama. Read more
Published on Dec 2 2003 by Dorota Wright-o'neill
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not his best work
I've read other works by this author that have grabbed my attention from the outset. For the first few chapters I was bored, wondering if this was ever going to 'take-off'. Read more
Published on Oct. 30 2003 by Keith Appleyard
1.0 out of 5 stars Spies
This is by far the most horrible book that I have ever come across. It's just horrible. Simple as that. Read the first paragraph and you'll see what I mean. Read more
Published on Sept. 10 2003
1.0 out of 5 stars Spies
This is by far the most horrible book that I have ever come across. It's just horrible. Simple as that. Read the first paragraph and you'll see what I mean. Read more
Published on Sept. 10 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars A Worthwhile Venture
Michael Frayn's "Spies" recounts a childhood incident of a boy named Stephen Weatley who narrates the story through the perspective of a now grown man. Read more
Published on March 19 2003 by Kevin Hansen
5.0 out of 5 stars Astutely intertwining of action and reaction
Michael Frayn brilliantly weaves the misunderstandings of a child with the adult world during World War Two London into an astounding testament to the naïve struggles of children... Read more
Published on March 19 2003 by marc levasseur
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