Violeta, by Isabel Allende*****

Violeta is an epic tale that spans, along with its protagonist, a century-long period that begins during the Spanish Flu and ends with our modern day pandemic. Technically, then, it is part of the growing body of pandemic literature, but as is always true for Allende’s novels, it is so much more.

I received a review copy, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine, but had I not, I’d have found a way to read this glorious story anyway. It’s available to the public now.

Violeta is born to wealth and privilege, the only daughter in a large family. Schooled at home by a nanny, sequestered in a mansion with servants to do her bidding, she is unaware that her luxurious standard of living comes at a tremendous cost to others. Then the market drops, and her father, who has overextended himself with unwise investments, is ruined. Most of her brothers are already grown and gone, but one brother, Jose Antonio, had remained at home, groomed by their father to take over the business one day. “He was the model son, and he was sick of it.” After their father’s abrupt departure, Jose Antonio finds himself responsible for the family; with the local populace in a state of near insurrection, the only thing left to do is to take his family—including Violeta—and leave town. They remove themselves to a distant farm owned by poor but generous friends, and they learn to make do as they’ve never done before.

We follow Violeta through her early marriage to a German immigrant who was “so bland and boring that he inspired instant trust,” and then through a long, tempestuous relationship with a handsome thug named Julian, who makes his fortune in dark, horrible ways involving illegal substances, the CIA, and the Mafia. And here, Allende’s startling sense of humor is in full brilliant flower, as she describes his retrieval of ill gotten funds from the septic tank of their Florida home:

He pulled a filthy bag from the hole, dragged it to the kitchen and poured the contents out on the floor; rolls of wet bills covered in poop. Gagging, I saw that Julian planned to clean the money in our washing machine. “No! Don’t even think about it!” I shouted hysterically. He must’ve understood that I was willing to draw blood to stop him, because I’d instinctively grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen. “Okay, Violeta, calm down,” he begged, frightened for the first time in his life. He made a call, and a short while later we had two mafia goons at our disposal. We went to a laundromat and the gangsters paid everyone to leave. Then the men stood guard as Julian washed the poop-covered bills. After that he had to dry them and pack them in a bag. He brought me along because he had no idea how to operate the machines. “Now I understand what money laundering is…”

As with all or most of Allende’s protagonists, Violeta becomes a strong woman that can stand on her own, and who picks and chooses the men she wants to be with. She is beautiful, intelligent, and ends up with piles of her own money that she has earned in an ethical manner. And here is my one, very small issue with this book; just once I would like to see an Allende main character that doesn’t get rich, but is fine anyway.

I am late in reviewing this book, but it’s important not to try to rush through a story such as this one, because the literary alchemy Allende creates is the sort that must be appreciated at one’s leisure. Her novels are not page turners; they don’t try to be. Instead, Violeta is the sort of book you take with you on a spa date, or to your very own bathtub with bubbles, candles, and your favorite beverage.

Highly recommended to feminist readers that enjoy top quality literary fiction.

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.

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.

The Spy Who Never Was, by Tom Savage*****

TheSpyWhoNeverI love Savage’s work, and this title is his best to date. I got my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Alibi. You can get it January 9, 2018.

Nora Barton is our protagonist, and she is recruited by Edgar Cole as an unofficial CIA agent—she has been helpful to the Agency before—because of her physical resemblance to someone being targeted by the enemy, an enemy known as TSB.

“Edgar Cole was using her as bait: here, kitty, kitty. Now Nora was in Paris with TSB, and the two of them were playing an elaborate game of I-know-you-know-and-you-know-I-know, and Nora wondered what would happen next in their little charade.”

Nora isn’t allowed to tell her husband, who is an intelligence agent himself, but she tells him some of it anyway. I smile, knowing I would do the same. He tells her not to accept this assignment—absolutely not—but Nora doesn’t take orders from him, and she makes the decision to go.

Savage writes true thrillers. Like his other novels, this one grabs you by the hair on the first page and doesn’t let go. I am accustomed to the traditional story arc, rising toward a climax, but that’s not what we get here; instead, there’s a huge surprise around every corner. My pulse raced while I read this thing, and my blood pressure rose. There are several places in my notes throughout the book that say “Holy crap!” or, “My heart!”

Once in Paris, people start getting dead. That agent that was attacked because he was guarding her—wait a minute, was he guarding her? Nora isn’t sure who she can trust, but happily, she has a personal friend, an elderly fellow now retired from intelligence that lives in Paris. Her friend’s message to her is sobering indeed: “Go home, Mademoiselle.”

Every now and then Savage breaks up the tension for a split second with humor, and I love this. Her mentor in Paris prides himself on his English use, and he misuses idioms in ways that are charming and sometimes very funny, and this is done in a way that doesn’t mock the French or anyone else. Savage is a pro, handling this delicate characteristic deftly. The mentor tells Nora that a spy known as “Le Faulcon” is here to kill her; he is a “Russian hitting man”.

Whoa now. Frankly, I would be on the plane back to the States in a jiffy; but then, I would not have gone at all. Nora, on the other hand, is a badass.

This leads me to my very favorite aspect of Savage’s work, which is becoming a literary signature: women generally don’t get saved by men here. Women either save themselves, or they save others. But in this regard, Savage is the ultimate anti-noir author. There are no helpless women. Three cheers for Savage’s powerful feminist fiction.

Last, let’s look at the side characters. There are a host of them, and a number of them are known by multiple names, so this is not a beach read. I quickly learned not to read this story after I took my sleeping pill, because if I did, I would just have to read it again the next day. In addition to our colorful older French mentor, Savage introduces a new character named Fanny that I would love to see again.

Get it digitally or get it on paper, but if you love a well-crafted psychological thriller, you have to read this book.