The Devil Aspect, by Craig Russell

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I read this creepy tale during the last half of October, and it is indeed a good way to get into the Halloween spirit. I am disgracefully late with my review—3.5 years late, as it happens—but I do thank Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is, of course, for sale now.

Here is what drew me in. This is horror of the old school variety, with gothic towers and half a dozen criminally insane inmates. It’s set in Czechoslovakia, which I seldom see. The flavor, overall, is similar to the stories we told as children around campfires or late at night during slumber parties. Of course, it has a more adult approach, but even so, this is classic horror.

Our protagonists are Viktor Kusarek, a Jungian psychiatrist who comes to the asylum to conduct experiments on the patients, or inmates, in order to prove a theory, and police chief Lukas Smolak, who is pursuing a serial killer that is running amok in Prague.

This is a story that is more about the journey than the destination, though perhaps not intentionally so. Hearing about each of the six savage killers as Viktor interviews them is vastly entertaining. There’s one spot about a third of the way in, where a patient, partially sedated, is explaining that he is innocent, and also that a guest sorely provoked him. Always so critical! He was determined to impress her with his cooking, and indeed, the longer he worked at the stove, the more reasonable she became. Viktor points out that the guest had stopped complaining because he had her head in the skillet. I laughed out loud! The middle of this novel is unmissable.

There are three things I would change. First, the book is a little overlong, and could bear some tightening. Second, the whole Nazi menace has nothing to do with the problem or its resolution. It seems more like window dressing than anything else, but it doesn’t add a thing to the story. If I were the editor, I would cut that part of it out and voila, some of the tightening would be achieved. And third, the ending is so, so predictable. I stuck with the story until around the 85 percent mark, at which point I figured all hope of an ending other than what I expected was pretty much gone. At that point I skipped to the end. Yup. There it was. I would have liked a less formulaic ending.

Still and all, fans of old fashioned horror could do a lot worse. If this sounds like your kind of book after everything I have said, then go for it. I am old and cranky, and what seems obvious to me might seem new and clever to those that haven’t read many books of this ilk. And one way or the other, getting there is a lot of fun.

When the Summer Was Ours, by Roxanne Veletzos***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I had proclaimed myself to be over and done with World War II fiction; there’s been a glut of it in the publishing world, and I have well and truly had my fill. My soft spot, however, is for any book written by an author whose work I have read and enjoyed. I reviewed Veletzos’s charming debut, The Girl They Left Behind, in 2018, and so when the opportunity came up, I agreed to read and review this one, too. It was a good decision.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation and review copy. This book is for sale now.

Eva Cesar, daughter of the well-to-do but terribly strict local bourgeois, falls in love when Aleandro, a Romani artist stops in her tiny town in Hungary. He is a painter and a fiddler, raising his younger brothers alone following the deaths of their parents. Eva’s father knows nothing of this romance, and it’s a darned good thing. Not only is her father a Nazi sympathizer and bigot, but she is already engaged to marry Eduard, a dedicated Red Cross physician whom she also loves.

The story follows all three of them over the years, shifting points of view. All three are likable characters; Aleandro is obsessive enough that he seems a little creepy at the outset, but as the story develops, that’s no longer the case. Eduard is a stable, likable human being, but he is the one that is least developed. Eva often makes passive decisions, which I find grating, yet these are the early 1940s, and women don’t yet know they’re entitled to be decisionmakers, at least in many regards. The plot seems to go all over the place, but it comes together quite nicely at the end.

There are two related developments I would have liked to see handled differently. First—and I’m telling you this because it occurs early—Eva becomes pregnant after just one night of passion with Aleandro. Picture me sticking two fingers down my throat. Gag, spit, gag some more; what an overused trope. But then it gets worse. Eva heads to a clinic where abortions are performed quietly, since the procedure isn’t legal; the facility is filthy, and the staff are rude; we briefly meet the doctor, who virtually has horns and a spiky tail, and dines regularly on the flesh of aborted embryos and fetuses. More or less, anyway. And with women’s rights to choose our own reproductive decisions under attack, this is the very worst possible time to put such vile propaganda into a novel. She flees, of course, and has the baby, of course. In fact, as I write this, I question my choice to knock off only half a star from my rating. I’m growing madder by the minute, just writing about it.

Moving on!

The most difficult aspect of a complex story like this one is deciding how to end it. I come back around when I see how tastefully and realistically this is achieved. The ending is both credible and sweet.

There it is; you decide.  

Agent Sniper, by Tim Tate***

I was invited to read and review this book by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I accepted because I do love a good spy story, and there aren’t many of them being published at this time. Tim Tate has had a long, illustrious career as a documentary filmmaker and as an author, but is new to me.

So, when I began reading and found my attention wandering, I thought it was a personal problem. Too many distractions. I tried again, and when that didn’t go well, I procured the audio version and listened to it while I prepared dinners during the week. Eventually, I threw in the towel and admitted that this is simply not an engaging book. The topic sounds fascinating, but just as a gifted, dedicated author can spin dull material to gold, so can an indifferent one tell an electrifying spy story in a way that leaves the reader checking the page numbers and the clock—is this thing over yet?

It’s not all bad news: the research here is top drawer. For the researcher, this book has use, although I would caution the uninitiated into reading carefully, because history is always politically charged. Every fact that is included, and every fact that is not; the interpretation; the language used, all give a biased account, even when a researcher and writer is endeavoring to be as balanced as possible. I don’t care for this writer’s interpretation, which makes him sound like a hardened right winger, but I have no doubt that the facts that he uses are accurate ones.

Then we come to the audio, and I must wonder why, if we’re primarily dealing with the CIA and its agents, we have a narrator with a clipped English accent (and a few pronunciations that sounded very odd to me,) telling the story. I found it disorienting, but if this had been a more engaging story, I would have overlooked it.

Ultimately it comes down to wordsmithery, and I didn’t find much of it. Those interested in dabbling in this genre would do better to read Ben McIntyre and Tim Weiner.

This book is for sale now.

The Road Less Traveled, by Philip Zelikow***

Is this going to be on the test?

My thanks go to Net Galley and Public Affairs for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I am initially drawn to this title when I see the subtitle—an opportunity to make an early peace that went unanswered—and I also want to read more about World War I. I love military history, and am sick to death of World War II material, so this felt like it might be a breath of fresh air.

Or not.

There is no doubt that Zelikow knows his field, and his research is above reproach. Students and researchers may find this book useful, albeit with a careful eye toward a very conservative point of view that affects his analysis. However, for those of us just in it for the joy of learning, I must caution that this is a slog. I read the first half in the digital format I was given, and after publication, I also availed myself of the audio version available at Seattle Bibliocommons, and it’s difficult to focus on either for long at a time, because it’s just Zzzzzzzz

Oh, I’m sorry! Was that me? Let me try again. The research is splendid; the analysis is reactionary; the presentation is a little zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I might have spared myself some frustration had I researched the author. Once I was able to focus long enough to get a feel for his political leanings, I ran a brief Google search, and discovered he’d been with the U.S. State Department under the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Oh.

At this point, you know enough to decide whether you want to read this thing. If you have a strong interest in the topic and aren’t squeamish about drawing information from the far right, then this is your book. Not mine, though.

The Family, by Naomi Krupitsky****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded upward.

The cover grabbed me first, two women in vintage sweaters—no faces even—and the title written in Godfather font. Oh, heck yes. I need to read this thing. The author is a newbie about whom I know nothing, so I know it may be a recipe for disappointment. I’ve taken review copies this way in the past, and have regretted it, because of course, the cover doesn’t speak to the author’s ability. But old school mobster books are fun, and they’re thin on the ground these days, so I hold my breath as I take a chance…and hit the jackpot!

This is one of the year’s best works of historical fiction, and you should get it and read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Antonia and Sofia grow up together; their fathers are both mobsters, and their houses share a wall. Not only are they thrown together for Family events from early childhood forward, but their peers ostracize them in elementary school, their family’s reputations having preceded them, so for several years, they are each other’s only option. But it’s enough.

Our story starts in 1928, and it ends in 1948. We follow the girls through childhood, adolescence, and into their early adult years. At the outset, their fathers are best friends, until Carlos, Antonia’s daddy, starts skimming, covertly building a nest egg in the hope of making a new start far away with his little family, doing an honest job, and leaving the Family behind.  His theft is, of course, detected, and he disappears; Joey, Sofia’s father, is promoted, and told to take care of Carlos’s widow and daughter. Thus, we have a clear, concrete reminder, right up front, that this is an ugly, violent business. The author’s note says she wants to demonstrate the strange way that violence and love can coexist, and she does that and more.

Those readers seeking a mob story full of chasing and shooting and scheming will do well to look elsewhere. We do find these things, of course, primarily in the second half, but the story’s focus is entirely on Sofia and Antonia. Whereas setting is important—and done nicely—the narrative’s fortune rises or sinks on character development, and Krupitsky does it right. These women become so real to me that toward the end, when some ominous foreshadowing suggests that devastating events are around the corner, I put the book down, stop reading it or anything else for half a day, and brood. I complain to my spouse. I complain to my daughter. And then, knowing that it’s publication day and I have an obligation, I return to face the music and finish the book. (And no. I’m not telling.)

My only concern, in the end, is a smallish smattering of revisionism that occurs during the last twenty percent of the novel. Knowing what gender roles and expectations are like in that time and place, I have to say that, while I can see one intrepid, independent female character stepping out of the mold, having multiple women do it to the degree I see it here is a reach.

Nevertheless, this is a badass book by a badass new talent, and Naomi Krupitsky proves that she is a force to be reckoned with. Get this book! Read it now.

The Nameless Ones, by John Connolly*****

Connolly has written the creepiest, spookiest, best written novel you will see this October. The Nameless Ones is #19 in the Charlie Parker series; my thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book goes up for sale October 26, 2021.

The series continues a conflict that began earlier in the series; that said, you can jump in here anyway. However, once you read this one, you’ll want to go back and pick up the others, or at least, say, the last five or six leading up to it. That’s all to the good, since Connolly can’t write as fast as you can read. Perhaps if you collect them you will be entertained until his next one comes out.

Unlike any of his other Charlie Parker stories, Parker plays a relatively peripheral role, with his two massively popular assistants, Angel and Louis, up front, with Louis having the lion’s share of the action. These two, who have served as Parker’s investigators and at times, as his body guards, are interesting characters. They do not love the law, but they do love each other. Angel is recovering from cancer treatment and Louis is in search of vengeance. Someone they had hired as a liaison in Serbia has been murdered, and the man’s last act, when he saw the walls closing in, was to wire a substantial sum into Louis’s account. Louis, in turn, intends to use that money to terminate the men that terminated his colleague. Stranger still, he is supported—in a massively unofficial manner—by the FBI. He doesn’t like it much, but there they are.

There’s a new character named Zorya, who is dead, but hasn’t crossed over. “She was a creature of the cold and dark. Zorya had winter blood.” She is physically small, and in a hoodie she is generally accepted by bystanders as an adolescent. She has attached herself to one of the men Louis is hunting, and has clairvoyant gifts. But what’s particularly interesting is her relationship to Jennifer Parker, the murdered seven-year-old daughter of Charlie. Jennifer has appeared to her father on a number of occasions, sometimes providing him with critical information. Now Connolly has decided to develop Jennifer, who has obtained a fair amount of power and authority on the other side of the veil. When Zorya targets Charlie, Jennifer targets Zorya. This is one of the coolest gambits I have seen in years, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book. But let’s get back to this one, since that’s what I’m supposed to be doing here.

New readers should prepare for a good deal of violence, and the most graphic and horrific shows up right at the beginning, so if you read it and aren’t sure you can stay the course through the end of the book, take heart. Lots more people are going to drop dead, but the most nightmarish details are up front. Nevertheless, it’s not something I read directly before sleeping.

The intensity and horror are nicely broken up with humor; the dialogue featuring Louis, Angel, or both positively crackles. I laughed out loud more than once. A pair of secondary bodyguards, the Fulci Brothers, whom Angel and Louis have deputized to watch out for Charlie at one point, are also welcome additions, and in no way resemble the pair that hired them. Sure enough, they save Parker’s butt. When the police arrive and Parker tells them only the bare minimum, the detective in charge reminds him that his would-be assassins may try again. “The Fulcis won’t always be ready to come to the rescue with a tire iron and a bear head.” (!!!)

As always, Connolly deftly employs a huge number of characters, and yet I am able to keep all of them straight. He keeps the time sequence linear, and this helps the story flow and keeps the players and events from becoming entangled.

If you’ve followed this review to this point, you have all the stamina you need to enjoy this exceptional novel. True, the book is longer than my review, but Connolly writes a lot better, too.

Highly recommended!

The Confidence Men, by Margalit Fox****

This stranger-than-fiction story of two World War I captives, one an English officer, the other Australian, that trick their way out of a Turkish prison camp via a long, elaborate con centered on a Ouija board is compelling and at times, funny as hell. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

The beginning is grim; grim enough that I abandon this story twice before ordering the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons to help me get over the hump. There’s torture, deprivation, and every ugly thing that the notion of an enemy prison brings to mind. I am especially horrified because I thought this book was going to be funny! Reader, it is, but you have to get past the grim and at times, dull beginning to get to the amusing bits. Somewhere between the fifteenth and twentieth percentiles, the shift occurs, and that’s when you can expect to enjoy yourself. You may want to skim a bit through this part; I do, and it works out well.

Harry Jones was an attorney before the Great War commenced; Cedric Hill was an Aussie auto mechanic. Once captured, the two have no chance at all making a conventional escape; the camp is too isolated for either of them to get anywhere, even if they were able to leave. Instead, what they have is nothing but time, and ultimately, that and their excellent imaginations and problem-solving skills, aided by some genuinely stupid captors, is what saves them.

The most impressive aspect of their scheme is that it takes place over a very long period of time. Not many con artists would be able to keep their story straight for so long. Jones and Hill have a great deal of self-discipline and organizational skill. Also, they’re afraid, and fear can improve one’s consistency and attention to detail. Once the meat of the story begins, it is absolutely riveting!

I flipped back and forth between my digital galley and the audio version. Both are equally good, but I would give a slight edge to the audio version, assuming the reader is primarily seeking entertainment. For a researcher, the print version is better for keeping details and sources straight.

Recommended to those that enjoy history and intelligent humor.

Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.

My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.

Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.

Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.

Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns