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

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson*****

“The memory of an elephant, the cleverness of a fox, the guile of a serpent, and the fierceness of a panther.”

Marie-Madeleine Fourcaude ran the largest spy network in France during World War II. Charismatic, organized, intelligent and completely fearless, she was possessed of such obvious leadership skills that even very traditional Frenchmen (and a few Brits as well) came to recognize and respect her authority and ability. I had never heard of her before this galley became available; thanks to go Net Galley and Random House. This book is for sale now. 

Fourcade was born into a wealthy family, and this fact almost kept me from reading this biography. Fortunately, others read it first and recommended it, and once I began reading I quickly caught onto the fact that no one without financial resources could have initiated and organized this network. At the outset, there was no government behind them and no funding other than what they could contribute themselves or scrounge up through the kinds of contacts that rich people have. There are a few fawning references to some of her associates—a princess here, a Duke there—that grate on my working class sensibilities, but they are fleeting. 

Fourcade’s organization ultimately would include men and women from all classes, from magnates and royals to small businessmen, train conductors, waitresses, postal clerks and so on. Some were couriers delivering information about Nazi troop placement and movement, U-boats and harbors and so forth, whereas others quietly eavesdropped as they went about their daily routines. Once they were able to network with the British, the organization became better supplied and funded, and it had an enormous impact on the fascist occupiers, which in turn drew more enemy attention to the resistance itself; among the greatest heroes were those that piloted the Lysander planes that delivered supplies and rescued members that were about to be captured. But not everyone was rescued; a great many were tortured, then killed. Fourcade herself was arrested twice, and both times escaped. 

If you had tried to write this woman’s story as fiction, critics would have said it lacked credibility. 

In reading about Fourcade, I learned a great deal more about the Resistance than I had previously known; in other nonfiction reading this aspect of the Allied effort was always on the edges and in the shadows, not unlike the spies themselves. In addition, I also came to understand that France was barely, barely even a member of the Alliance. The British bombed a ship to prevent fascists from seizing it, but they didn’t evacuate it first, and an entire ship full of French sailors were killed, leading a large segment of the French population to hate the British more than the Germans. Then too, there was a sizable chunk of the French government that welcomed the fascists. 

Revisionist histories will have us believe that the Nazis were opposed but that France was powerless to stop them, and for some that was true; yet the ugly truth is that it was the French themselves that incorporated anti-Semitism into their governmental structure before the Germans demanded it. Vichy cops had to take an oath “against Gaullist insurrection and Jewish leprosy.” When planning D-Day, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t even want to include the French in the planning or even inform them that the Allies were invading. Let them find out the same way that the Germans would, he suggested to Churchill. But the British insisted on bringing in friendly French within the orbit of De Gaulle, not to mention those around a pompous, difficult general named Henri Gouroud, a hero from World War I who had to be more or less tricked into meeting with the Allies at the Rock of Gibraltar. The guy was a real piece of work, and some of the humorous passages that are included to lighten up an otherwise intense story focus on him.

I have never read Olson’s work before, but the author’s note says that she writes about “unsung heroes—individuals of courage and conscience who helped change their country and the world but who, for various reasons, have slipped into the shadows of history.” Now that I’ve read her work once, I will look for it in the future. 

Highly recommended to historians, feminists, and those that love a good spy story, too.