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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Giles Milton, CHURCHILL'S MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE: THE MAVERICKS WHO PLOTTED HITLER'S DEFEAT


In 1939, Churchill brought together a group of six men whose job was to fight "dirty," as it became clear that guerrilla warfare and innovative weapons might be the only way to beat Hitler. This group of out-of-the-box thinkers used everything from hard candies that dissolved in ocean water to higher mathematics to design bombs and plots that would foil Hitler's plans. 

Although at times I felt the book gets bogged down in the bureaucracy of it all (I'd start skimming at the details of who hired whom), there are other places where the book reads like a series of daring, bizarre escapades. My favorite account, toward the end, was about a small group of men who parachuted into Norway to destroy a heavy water plant that Hitler would have used to build an atomic bomb. The fact that they landed in a dense blizzard, then (by sheer luck) literally bumped into a solitary hut that sheltered them for four days until the blizzard ended, confounded Nazi resistance, found their resistance counterparts, scaled a huge cliff, on top of which stood the factory, and managed to set off the bombs and escape without significant injury is ... well, it could be a GREAT movie. 

What also fascinated me was that the notion of "(un)gentlemanly warfare" in 1939 was produced discursively, in an argument on the Letters page of the London *Times*. One writer claimed that the sword was the only weapon appropriate for a gentleman, as it gave both fellows a chance and made it a "sporting affair." But--another writer pointed out--did it really matter if one cut the enemy's jugular with a sword or a bayonet? This book spends some time tracing the process by which the English eventually acknowledged that Hitler was no longer playing by rules that governed earlier wars. As I read, I had some compassion for Chamberlain; he didn't want to acknowledge that difference--perhaps because it suggested many other kinds of loss. The very definitions of words such as fairness and justice and decency were changing.

I stole this book from my husband's nightstand after we began watching ATLANTIC CROSSING on PBS. I found this book a good companion to the series, which begins in Norway in 1939 and follows the Crown Princess of Norway to America, where she influences FDR's thoughts and policies on the war. I would recommend to fans of WWII true history and of books such as Eric Larson's THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE. 

Friday, April 23, 2021


I thoroughly enjoyed this Victorian mystery set in 1893, when the young future Nicholas II comes to London for a wedding and Barker and Llewelyn are hired to protect him from assassination. I was privileged to be able to interview Will Thomas via zoom, with Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen. 

This is the 12th in the series, and I jumped in about half way (somewhere around #7, I believe). I've enjoyed them ever since. For those who have not yet met Barker and Llewelyn, they are neither Scotland Yard inspectors nor policemen. They are "private enquiry agents," and readers who enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories will find much to appreciate here in the banter and difference between these two protagonists. As with the Holmes stories, these are narrated by the "sidekick" ... thank goodness because Llewelyn is very likable and funny--a nice offset to the crimes and mayhem; Barker is rather imposing and fierce. 

Two of my favorite aspects of these books are first, the humor. It is not ha-ha, elbow in the sides humor. It's subtle--a small wry wink and a nudge to the reader. For example, when Llewelyn and Barker are introduced as "Lewis and Baker," he shrugs it off: "We'd been called worse." There are dozens of these ... I wouldn't even call them one-liners, as sometimes they're merely half a line. But they keep me smiling as I read and give me a sense of connection to and sympathy with Llewelyn. 

The other aspect I love is that I feel deeply steeped in Victorian London throughout the book. The author has been writing about Victorian London for years now, and he's familiar enough with the sights and sounds that they appear organically; he doesn't shoehorn them in. The historical figures William Morris and Israel Zangwell appear, and for those readers who know who they are, it's fun to find and recognize them. Beyond that, the very metaphors he uses are drawn very specifically from that English world. Describing trying to find a messenger boy to deliver a note: "The boy slipped by like a salmon on the River Spey." Describing what it was like to be close to a man who was shot: "It was like one of them butchers in Leadenhall market threw a bucket of blood all over us." It's like being immersed in a pot of proper English tea ... or perhaps the Thames! 

Despite that last example, these books are not gritty. The violence is largely off the page, and I wouldn't feel uncomfortable recommending these books to my teenage son. I'd recommend to fans of Charles Finch, Alex Grecian (THE YARD, etc.), and Abir Mukherjee (A RISING MAN, etc.).

Friday, April 9, 2021

Elizabeth Wetmore, VALENTINE


1976 Odessa, Texas. The book begins with a rape of young 14-year-old girl, Gloria Ramirez, by an older white man, Dale Strickland, the son of a preacher, who bears no remorse for what he's done. Subsequent chapters trace the aftermath, but rather than focusing solely on Gloria's story, this book tells five separate stories, of five women, loosely connected by life but caught in the same painful, stifling misery. Some reviewers didn't like the constant shifting among the five women narrators, but to me it suggested their fate was inescapable; every woman, not just one or two, experienced pain with a different source. The only help for it was to grab the car keys and drive out of town because the brutality in Odessa is pervasive and systemic, tainting every aspect of life. 

In Wetmore's hands, oil is at once the source of material wealth and a metaphor for the darkness, the crudeness that is inheres in very bedrock of the town. At one point, the oil erupts from a new well, completely out of control, stinking and sliming across the ground, blackening the land and smothering through slow death all the plants in its way. So here, the football players suffer concussions--"they have their bell rung a little"--and keep on playing. Pastor Rob preaches the evils of desegregation: it's like "locking a cow, a mountain lion, and a possum in the same barn together, then being surprised when somebody gets eaten."  And a white man who rapes a Hispanic girl gets away with it. The few attempts at kindness--the young girl DA trying to help a Vietnam veteran, a woman testifying on Gloria's behalf--end badly, with vicious threats and near-fatal consequences. 

My one difficulty with the book is that while circumstances change--Mary Rose moves off her ranch and into town; Glory leaves Texas for Mexico with her uncle--I didn't find that the characters change. That is, there's change but not much, if any, evidence of psychological growth, and I look for that in a book. That said, Wetmore has built a dark world and a relentlessly harrowing tale, with language that is strong and poetic. I'll be interested to see what she writes next. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Allison Epstein, A TIP FOR THE HANGMAN

 


Years ago, for a course in grad school, I read Christopher Marlowe's play A JEW OF MALTA (c. 1590), and I remember wondering what sort of mind would conjure a play so full of brutality, revenge, poison, and betrayal. Marlowe's play DR FAUSTUS is a heartbreaker, too. I'm a sucker for anything British historical, so when I saw the brief synopsis of this novel about Marlowe on the Poisoned Pen website, I popped in for the zoom talk with the author and subsequently read the book. 
I found this a solid debut and a very satisfying read. Yes, Epstein has taken some liberties with history (which she acknowledges in her author's note, and which unlike some reviewers I don't mind; I've used the same "get out of history free card" myself) but she's captured beautifully what might have been the brain and heart that would write those tragic plays. Her Marlowe is psychologically coherent, full of longing and pain and conflicting passions--a desire to do something of significance on the world/on the stage and a wish to do what he likes, behind the scenes, without repercussions. The story of how Marlowe is drawn into spying on behalf of Queen Elizabeth while simultaneously writing his plays and falling in love is suspenseful and moves at a quick pace. The writing is modern (Epstein doesn't attempt to reproduce Elizabethan English, thank goodness) and well wrought, with finely tuned dialog and some lovely poetic bits. The spymaster Walsingham: "You are Christopher Marlowe. ... Skilled in rhetoric and disputation, disgraceful in geography and geometry. You've been smoking all evening and hoped I wouldn't notice." Marlowe, in a stick spot: "He took a deep breath, then let it out. Two seconds, to stitch together some semblance of calm." A pleasure to read.
People who liked Hilary Mantel's books will find much to like here, although frankly I found this novel to be more accessible than Mantel's. The fact that Epstein is a Northwestern grad ... well, I'm sending this book along to my daughter who is also a Cat. :) 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Ruth Ware, ONE BY ONE


A contemporary take on the Agatha Christie classic AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1939) in which eight people arrive on a desert island and are met by the butler and housekeeper, after which they are murdered one by one. In Ware's version, ten people on a company retreat arrive at a luxurious ski chalet in the French alps and are met by the cook and housekeeper; shortly afterward an avalanche cuts off all communication, rendering the place a virtual island. One by one, the guests disappear and/or die. Like Ware's other books, this hits its target of being a quick, easy-to-read thriller. I must confess, I guessed the killer about half-way through, partly because the story is told in chapters with alternating narrators. The fact that the company is a tech startup aimed at connecting people through music was a nice touch, when the murders depend upon people becoming separated.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Walter Tevis, THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT


After watching the superb NETFLIX adaptation of this book, I was curious about the book. The adaptation adheres very closely to the novel, with the exception of building more backstory than Tevis gives us; the scenes between Beth and her mother, in particular, are developed more fully than in the book. For those who have not seen the NETFLIX version, it's a great read, with spare, direct prose, and a quick pace. I had already seen the end of the series, and I knew how it ended, and I STILL found myself racing through the last quarter of the book, in a good way. That's a measure of the suspense Tevis builds into the story. 

That said, when I went back and reread sections (when I wasn't reading for plot), I realized (to my great enjoyment) how subtly Tevis had woven in some suggestive, nuanced themes. For example, here are the opening lines: "Beth learned of her mother's death from a woman with a clipboard. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. ... A legend under her picture read: 'Orphaned by yesterday's pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizaeth harmon surveys a troubled future.'" So from the first lines, he suggests that Beth apprehends her life not as her own lived experience but mediated through the eyes of others, through words and photographs about her, and in the company of someone with a [clip]board. The plot propels the story along, but it was with pleasure that I went back to the beginning and thought about chess as the central metaphor, with all its multiple meanings. I'll be adding his other books to my TBR. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021


A solid debut, which I read in one sitting (it's a relatively short novel). Set in present-day India, a young woman named Jivan makes a careless comment on Facebook and becomes the scapegoat for a train bombing, which becomes so politicized that two acquaintances—a former PE teacher and an aspiring actor/friend—must betray Jivan in order to preserve their own dreams. What overwhelmed me throughout is the precariousness of any individual’s life. One tiny wrong move, for any of these three characters, and their lives will be forever changed and hopes destroyed. Corruption is so pervasive that rewards for hard work and decency simply don't exist anywhere. I might have appreciated some small sign of fair play; it would have added nuance. But as it stands, the book is devastating and relentless. Spoiler alert: this is not *Slumdog Millionaire.*