Such Good Work, by Johannes Lichtman****

I was invited to read this debut novel by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, but when I first saw it in my inbox, I recoiled. Another addiction memoir! Another chance to live through someone else’s excruciating nightmare! But then I read a few early reviews—they didn’t bear the numbed courtesy of an obligatory write-up.  And then my own sense of courtesy tipped me over the edge. I was, after all, invited. Did I not want to be invited anymore? Of course I should read it.

The story is Lichtman’s own written as autofiction, and his unusual writing style drew me in. I was surprised to see how quickly I went through it. At the outset, he is teaching creative writing and is crestfallen to find that a student he has championed has plagiarized her work for him, and not only is his anecdote written with great humor, it is immediately familiar to me, and most likely will be to all English teachers.  We want to believe; we want to be supportive. And once in awhile, someone younger than ourselves comes along and manipulates the hell out of us. It is a humbling experience.

Jonas is half American, half Swede, and he finds that to get off of opiates and opiods, he needs to be in Sweden, where street drugs are much harder to procure.  He is enrolled in a graduate program in Malmo, but finds his time is primarily consumed by the refugee crisis as he volunteers to teach in a language school. Young men from the Middle East come by the thousands, and he is proud that Sweden doesn’t close its border, doesn’t set a cap to the number of immigrants it will welcome. At the same time, the Swedish government has some double standards where race is concerned; the Roma people that set up an encampment are quickly swept away. Then the nightclub bombing in Paris provides officials with an excuse to shut it all down; it’s a tremendous blow to the refugees and to those that want to help them.

At times I fear for this writer, because he seems to have no filters with which to protect his own heart as he hurls himself into his volunteer work; he wants to make a difference so desperately.  Many years ago I saw a short film that showed a Bambi-like deer grazing in a forest, and then the massive foot of Godzilla smashes it like a bug, and in his ragged, hungry quest for social justice, the author reminds me of that deer. Social justice work requires sacrifice to be sure, but a little care toward one’s own mental health is also essential. Lichtman’s master’s thesis focuses on a Swedish writer that ultimately succumbs to despair, turning on the car and closing the garage door, and I found myself urging this author to have a care, lest the same happen to him, a danger he refers to himself in the narrative. (From the acknowledgements at the end, I see that he appears to have emerged in one piece, at least so far.)

The stories of the refugee boys are searing ones. A young man told of walking through Iran, followed by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark on his way to Sweden. The whole journey was done on foot. So many families were dead that the boys’ tutors learned it was sometimes better not to inquire too deeply about those left behind. At one point, Jonas decides to become a mentor to one person, but things go amiss and he ruefully recalls his own role as that of “clumsy Samaritan.”

Lichtman’s prose is gently philosophical in a style that is slightly reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though in no way derivative. His perceptive commentary regarding the events that unfold around him, along with the lessons he learns about himself, is witty and absorbing. Along the way I picked up a little knowledge about Swedish culture and society that I didn’t have before.

The title has sharp edges.

Recommended to those interested in Swedish culture, the refugee crisis, and addiction issues, as well as to anyone that just enjoys a good memoir.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah*****

You could say I am late to the party, and you would be right. I had a chance to read a galley, but I read the synopsis and then scrolled past it. More World War II fiction? Ho hum. But the most well-worn subject matter can be made brand new in the most capable hands, and Hannah has done that. I thank the Goodreads friends that insisted I should read this book, and Seattle Bibliocommons for providing me with a copy. 

Our two protagonists are French sisters whose mother has died. Vianne, the elder sister, marries and leaves; Isabelle is sent to one boarding school after another by her grieving papa, who has nothing to give his daughters emotionally. The Nazi threat is far away and of little concern to the people of Paris—until they come closer, and then they’re here.

The Nazis sweep through Papa’s bookstore. They trash the shelves and confiscate all of his Marx, all of his Trotsky. They say these are terrorist materials. And then—they put him on their payroll.

Isabelle leaves yet another boarding school and goes home to her Papa, determined to remain at home. She receives a cold and unwelcoming return; then the Germans pierce the Maginot Line, once believed to be impenetrable, and Paris is no longer safe. Papa sends a bitter Isabelle to live with her sister, but she is traveling in the car of neighbors, and they are forced to abandon their vehicle. Isabelle is on her own.

Vianne, meanwhile, is tending to hearth and home. For years she miscarried one baby after another, late miscarriages at that, and the love her sister might have expected has instead turned to grief for the tiny people buried in a family plot in Vianne’s yard. Her husband has been conscripted, and she is alone with the one child she was able to bear. Vianne is not a risk taker, because she has too much to lose. Everything she does is in the interest of her daughter, Sophie, and her husband. Isabelle arrives and almost immediately begins making waves, behaving provocatively toward the occupying German forces, and Vianne is horrified. Isabelle has to go.

Over the course of the story both sisters are developed in a way that is so natural, so believable that I can sometimes predict what they will do, not because the writing is formulaic—it isn’t—but because I feel I know them so well now. I want to speak to the characters directly, so visceral is my reaction to them. Isabelle, who at the outset is reactive and reckless, joins the Resistance and becomes a disciplined patriot, code-named “The Nightingale”. She is still courageous, but she learns to weigh her actions against the benefits and risks to her cause. Vianne, who at the outset is conservative, becomes more willing to take risks on behalf of the Jewish children in her small community, children that are likely to either starve or be killed if they are not smuggled into safe homes.  All along, I am murmuring advice to them: “Do it! Do it!” and “Don’t you dare.”

A particularly interesting and unexpected development is the change in Papa; the drunken, abusive, uncaring lout has a side that nobody suspects, and he becomes a flawed yet heroic side character.

Once I realized that Hannah is a force in today’s literary world, I read the galley of her next novel, The Great Alone (reviewed by me also.) It was good, but nothing close to what this story is, and so I am glad I read them in this order, saving the better story as a tasty dessert.  If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now. Trust me.

The King and the Catholics, by Antonia Fraser****

TheKingandtheCI was rooting around on Net Galley looking for some good nonfiction when I ran across this title. Many thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. This book is now available to the public.

Fraser examines the fight for Catholic Emancipation in Britain, from the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of the late 1700s until roughly fifty years later. It is appalling that so much time, effort and money was needed for so small a thing as religious freedom, but there it is.

My own interest is more in the direction of Catholic history, with Irish history as a major part of that, and so portions of this well written, painstakingly researched and documented tome drew me more than others. I don’t care a whit what the king or any other members of the royal family say, want, or do, so for those with a closer interest than mine, this might well be a five star read. Parts of it are a trifle dry, but then Fraser livens it up with brief, lively sketches of the historical figures involved.

A major player in the struggle was the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, and I read all of the passages in which this eloquent barrister is featured with tremendous interest. I also enjoyed seeing ways in which events in the larger world influenced events in the UK, from the French Revolution to the Boer Wars in South Africa.

An excellent addition to the library of any that are interested in the topic.

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

A Brotherhood of Spies, by Monte Reel****

BrotherhoodSpies3.5 stars rounded up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

The story begins with a US spy plane being shot down over Soviet (Russian) airspace in 1960. This is embarrassing. Eisenhower’s people decide to make something up; after all, nobody survives an airplane crash over dry land. Moreover, the pilot was provided with a cyanide capsule—James Bond style—so even if he survived, he must be dead; likewise, the plane was likely blown to bits, with not much left for the Soviet investigators to learn.

Let’s say it was a weather plane. It wandered off course, and those mean Soviets shot it down.

But oh dear, this is even more embarrassing: the pilot lived, and he didn’t feel like taking the poison pill. Would you?  So the Russians know what he was flying, and they know who he is. They’re telling the world.

Just reading the teaser for this book, I was hooked. But just as a brilliant writer can take dross and make a good tale of it, so can an indifferent one take compelling information and make it into a snooze. For me, this was not an entertaining read. I had agreed to write about it, so I had to read it, and it felt like work.

I want to be fair here: there are people that will read this book and like it. There’s a lot of technical information about the spy plane, and about many other spy planes, some of which were never built. Apart from the truly bizarre one that was supposed to be landed on its belly (no landing gear), or the ridiculous idea of a nuclear powered plane, I found my attention drifting during these descriptions. But I am not interested in aviation, and if you are, you may like this.

The other aspect that causes my attention to wander is the history 101 aspect of it. I’m a retired history teacher. I don’t need an author to walk me through the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs. However, I note that other reviewers came to this work with no knowledge of either, and they are delighted to be clued in. For newbies, count this as a win.

Finally, I have to credit the source work. Reel didn’t take the easy way out. His end notes are first rate.

For those that are relatively new to this chapter of American history, this may be a compelling read. For those interested in the history of American aviation, it is recommended. For those that are well read in the field, maybe not.

This book is now for sale.

Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys***

dangerouscrossingDangerous Crossing is an historical mystery set at the outset of World War II. I was invited to review it by Atria Books and Net Galley; it was published earlier this month, and you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Lily Shepherd, a young woman in need of a fresh start. Her family’s scant resources are tapped in order to send her via cruise ship to Australia, where she is to enter domestic service. On board she meets Max and Eliza Campbell, wealthy, obnoxious, and carrying some skeletons of their own. We have Maria, a Jewish refugee, along with George, a Nazi sympathizer.  Helena and Edward are adult siblings, and there’s romantic tension crackling between Lily and Edward. Along the way are exotic ports of call such as Cairo, Egypt and Ceylon; these are places Lily would never have hoped to see under ordinary circumstances, but fate surprises her.

Rhys does a fine job of managing historical details, and in particular the social stratifications that existed in British society during this time period and the limitations they imposed.  The ending has more than one interesting twist. On the down side, I find the figurative language to be stale at times and the relationships overwrought in places. I felt that the story could do with some tightening up. However, fans of a traditional mystery will find this is a fine mystery to curl up with on a chilly winter night. The varying perspectives of the cruise’s passengers dovetail in many ways with those we see today, and many will notice an eerie familiarity in these characters from an earlier time.

Recommended to those that enjoy cozy mysteries and traditional historical mysteries.

The Price of My Soul, by Bernadette Devlin*****

ThePriceofMySoulDevlin write this, her autobiography, when she was all of 23 years old. Had it been anyone else I would have considered it ridiculous, a juvenile pretention, but Bernadette Devlin was one of the primary fighters for Irish freedom during the tumultuous 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and given how events played out, it is likely that she wrote this while fully anticipating that she’d be killed in the struggle fairly early on. Goodness knows, the British cops tried. Here’s a bit of background information from Wikipedia:

 On 16 January 1981 she and her husband were shot by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who broke into their home near CoalislandCounty Tyrone. The gunmen shot Devlin fourteen times in front of her children. British soldiers were watching the McAliskey home at the time, but failed to prevent the assassination attempt, indeed it has been claimed that Devlin’s assassination was ordered by British authorities and that collusion was a factor. An army patrol of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, entered the house and waited for half an hour. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has claimed they were waiting for the couple to die. Another group of soldiers then arrived and transported her by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The paramilitaries had torn out the telephone and while the wounded couple were being given first aid by the newly arrived troops, a soldier ran to a neighbour’s house, commandeered a car, and drove to the home of a councillor to telephone for help. The couple were taken by helicopter to hospital in nearby Dungannon for emergency treatment and then to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care.

 Soon after her recovery, the author-activist went on a speaking tour, and this reviewer was able to hear her talk when she came to the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.  Her intelligence, eloquence, and fierce, courageous nationalism left me spellbound. And yet, it was only recently that I learned she’d written a memoir over a decade earlier. I was even more amazed to find that it was available for sale, albeit used and fairly banged up; all praise to the internet. And so this time, instead of heaping praise upon the publishers, I will thank my youngest son for securing a copy for me at Christmas. It was worth the wait.

Devlin was orphaned, along with her sisters and brothers, when she was still a teenager. She and her siblings had a conversation and decided that they would raise themselves, rather than be parceled out to relatives and neighbors, broken up like pieces of a candy bar to be distributed willy-nilly by the church. But her parents left her a legacy, one that said not to let anyone shove a Devlin around. One of my favorite moments in her engaging narrative is early on, when her mother is being attended by a physician for a fallen arch in one foot. The doctor’s solution is to tightly bind it in hopes it will grow back to its proper configuration, but instead it becomes desperately deformed. One day when the doctor is rebandaging it, her mother complains of pain, and the doctor replies that there is no real pain; he says her mother is merely neurotic. In response, her mother raises her good foot and kicks the man across the room.

A woman after my own heart.

But the best passages, as the reader might expect, are those detailing the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, and in particular the struggle based on social class regardless of religion. She tells of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday, when a peaceful parade including small children and babies in their strollers is gunned down by cops. Devlin speaks of the “evil delight” she sees on the faces of violent cops as they beat people down at an earlier demonstration.

There are lessons to be learned here, and now is the time to learn them.

Remarkably enough, there are still copies of this historical treasure for sale, used. Anyone that is interested in the Irish freedom struggle; cop violence; or Irish history should find a copy now, while you can still get them cheaply.

Silence, by Anthony Quinn*****

silenceSilence is the third in the Inspector Celcius Daly series, but I read it alone and didn’t realize I had missed anything until I got online and looked. I received my copy free from Net Galley and Open Road Media in exchange for this honest review. It’s been for sale for almost a year and I apologize for my tardiness; the book had been out for several months before I received my DRC, and so I kept setting this review aside in order to write about stories that were about to be published immediately.  None of this should keep you from rushing out to order a copy; as you can see I rated it five stars, and I am picky these days.

I am immediately drawn to this book because of the setting; it takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s. Although I am impatient with the trite expression used by the journalist in the story—“sectarian violence”—I find the setting resonant and the characters credible. The entire thing is wholly original, but it’s complex, so it’s not something you can read while you’re trying to do something else.

Our protagonist is the Inspector Daly, a lonely man with kind intentions and deteriorating mental health. We have a dead man in the priest’s hotel room, but then we learn the dead man isn’t Father Walsh. If that’s not Father Walsh, where has he gotten to, and who is our victim? Last is our villain, Daniel Hegarty, an IRA man captured and turned by the Special Branch.

I particularly appreciate the moment with the sheep.

The field of mysteries, thrillers, and others of this ilk are thick with mechanisms that make me want to throw things. I think everyone that’s read many books in this genre has a private list. I am simply ecstatic to find that no one here is trying to solve the mystery either because they themselves are framed for something they didn’t do, or because a loved one has been threatened; no one in our tale is kidnapped, blindfolded, gagged, and tossed into the trunk—er, boot—of a car.  It’s refreshing.

Of course, to get a five star rating takes more than just a lack of irritating features. The setting, in the dark, in the muck, and sweating past police checkpoints, is both visceral and at times, scary. It’s the sort of story that makes a reader snuggle under the covers and be grateful for a safe, warm place to lie down. The characters are not always lovable, but they are entirely believable. That’s what counts with me. And the ending is a complete surprise, yet also makes sense.

For those that like literate, complex mysteries, it’s hard to beat. Highly recommended.

The Prisoner, by Alex Berenson****

theprisoner Berenson has written a whole series of espionage thrillers featuring John Wells, a CIA operative fighting al Qaeda. I was unaware of this when I requested a DRC from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, but I find it stands up quite nicely as a stand-alone novel. Would I have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the others first? We will never know.  However, if you’d like to read this tightly woven thriller either in sequence or singly, it will be available January 31, 2017.

To enjoy an espionage thriller, one has to buy the premise, namely that the CIA is a heroic organization, or at least has a segment of good guys that are fighting terrorism to keep innocent civilians safe. This is a premise I buy cheerfully for the sake of a good yarn; I do it when I read crime fiction in which the cops are morally righteous, or at least more good than bad, so why not here. In exchange, I got to enjoy an intense, interesting thriller that is different from a lot of the other fiction I read, and novelty is a meaningful selling point when one spends several hours daily with one’s nose in a book.

This is a literate read. In a world of dumbed-down fiction that plays to the lowest common denominator, I have come to value writers that have a strong vocabulary and aren’t afraid to use it. I also learned some things about the Middle East and how the USA operates there, including a few new specialized terms and some information about the cultures featured in that part of the world. Of course, this is fiction and it could also be true that Berenson made it all up, but his past includes work as a war correspondent in Iraq, and so perhaps this is what gives the setting its authenticity.

Our premise is that there is a mole at a high level inside of the CIA. John Wells has been feeling the itch to travel, impatient with his wife’s demand for more family time and suffocated by the dull sameness of everyday life in the States. He volunteers to return to the Mid-East and pose as an al Qaeda recruit so that he can be tossed into a Bulgarian prison and cozy up to the high-up operative that is interned there.

I blanched slightly at this; I have read a couple of former CIA employees’ memoirs, and I had to swallow hard to pretend that this guy would actually do this thing. But when we read thrillers, whether it’s crime, mystery, or a spy story, we don’t really want to read about tedium and paper pushing; we want excitement. Once I bought the premise, I was wedded to the narrative.

The other key characters here are Shafer, the CIA officer Wells reports to and who is also hunting for the mole; and the mole, whose name I can’t tell you without ruining the book.At first I thought I was seeing shallow characterization, but Wells’ character is developed in a way that is so subtle that the reader may not realize it’s occurred. Gradually we come to know who Wells is, how he thinks, how he will respond. On the other hand, our mole is a loser and remains a caricature throughout.

Every significant character here is male, but from what little I know, that’s consistent with the CIA, especially among the highest officers, a glass ceiling that’s hard to crack, so Berenson is merely reflecting US intelligence as it actually is.

The plot’s arc is a little different than one might usually expect.  The hook at the start is arresting, and I expected it to perhaps ratchet up, up, up from there. Instead, the pace flagged once we were about 15 percent of the way in, and then gradually began to ascend again. By the time I was 70 percent of the way in, I understood that the next time I picked it up, I would have to finish it.

When we hit the climax, set in France, I threw off the quilt and sat up. The pulse-pounding denouement was inconsistent with lying supine and I read the last 15 percent of the book sitting up and leaning forward.

This story is guaranteed to spike your adrenaline and chase away the winter blahs. Recommended to those that enjoy espionage thrillers.

Point of No Return, by Martha Gellhorn*****

pointofnoreturn.jpgI want to give a shout-out to Open Road Media for the way they value the First Amendment. Every now and then I review something they’ve given me and rate it with one or two stars, and each time I wonder whether my outspoken criticism will get me knocked off their list of auto-approved readers. It’s never happened. It gives me a little extra joy, therefore, when I’m asked to read and review a book that is straight-up excellent, because everyone will know my five star rating is the real deal. Thanks, Open Road…and happy holidays to you, and to my faithful readers, too.

This exceptionally strong World War II story was a New York Times best seller when it was first published in 1948. Open Road Media has brought it back to us digitally, and I read it free in exchange for this honest review. I thank Open Road and Net Galley for inviting me to do so. Martha Gellhorn was at Dachau a week after its liberation, and her experience frames part of the narrative, the fictional tale of Jacob Levy, US soldier in Europe. This excellent war story is available to the public Tuesday, December 20, 2016.

It’s hard to miss the irony: Levy answers the call to duty, but his commanding officer is unhappy to discover that a member of his personal staff, his driver, is Jewish. He’s never had a Jew in his outfit before and doesn’t want one now; still, there’s nothing much he can do about it, so he forges grimly onward.

Levy, on the other hand, has heard stories and eventually sees situations in which nearly nobody gets out of a wildly dangerous situation alive except for his boss. He decides—as soldiers sometimes do—that his commander is lucky, and therefore the closer to that officer a man is, the likelier he is to share in that luck. He serves so faithfully and dependably that his commander eventually changes his mind and decides he likes Levy, without Levy ever learning that he’d been unwanted.

Our story starts when Levy joins the army in the United States, but quickly shifts to Europe. The most poignant scenes are those in Luxembourg, where the shell-shocked troops are astonished to find a semblance of normal life. There are houses that have people in them, food cooking, and glass in the windows. It is here that Jacob meets Kathe, and although there is no common language spoken between them, they fall in love anyway. For the rest of his part of this war, he will hold dear to the notion of a little home in the Smoky Mountains where he and Kathe can raise a family together.

I had sworn off Holocaust stories, telling myself that I already know about it; I no longer have students to whom to impart the information; from now on, I will only read what I want to read. But I appear to have landed on a list of reviewers that read this sort of book, and once I was invited, I decided I could read just one more. And I am so glad that I did.

The reader should know that the Holocaust is nothing more than rumor for 80 percent of the book. We aren’t looking at 300 pages of horror. There are battle scenes that are vivid and raw; Jacob participates in the Battle of the Bulge. People die; nobody can write about World War II accurately without imparting the fear, the grief, and the alienation that its participants and witnesses endured. But most of it is about Jacob as a person, what he thinks and feels. In other words, this is more the story of one soldier’s life than it is military history.

Technically this story isn’t historical fiction, because it wasn’t written 50 years or more after the events it describes. However, it will impact the reader as if it is, because the World War II was a very long time ago. So I recommend this book to those that love first rate historical fiction; that like to read about the European theater of World War II; or that like a good romance.