Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #94: The Tailor of Panama by John le Carre

A wry political satire and thriller rolled into one, this departure from the usual le Carre fare had me laughing and wincing in equal turns. The story revolves around Harry Pendel, a British ex-pat and tailor living in Panama in 1999, just prior to the end of American occupation of the Canal, who is blackmailed by Andy Osnard, a newly-arrived agent of Britain’s intelligence service, into spying on the post-Noriega Panamanian ruling elites that he services. The fundamentally racist and imperialist British plot behind Osnard’s deployment is to fake a “democratic opposition” to a “corrupt government” in Panama, and thereby force the Americans to retake control of the geopolitically crucial Canal rather than allow the “slothful” Panamanians—or even worse, the “power-hungry” Japanese—to capture it.

Our tailor in Panama isn’t all that he appears to be, however, but an “ex”-con who did time back in England, and he fabricates intelligence on a scale that even he didn’t think possible.  Osnard isn’t what he appears to be either, but the corrupt tail end of a played-out line of British gentry who is primarily interested in rapidly accruing a personal fortune under cover of his deployment. In fact, Le Carre depicts the entire British diplomatic corps in Panama as mostly incompetent and venal fools, which Osnard and Pendel  both strive to take full advantage of, ultimately at the expense of the innocents around them. Le Carre’s skewering of the old boy network in British intelligence with their imperial aspirations, and his depiction of such parasitical newcomers to the foreign intelligence service as Osnard, is brutal and unforgiving, deservedly so. His presentation of the Panamanian ruling elites as mostly corrupt, with a few exceptions, is equally brutal. The Americans are treated with less fury by le Carre, but perhaps only because he hardly deals with them at all except as the manipulable chess pieces of the British.

The only ones who get a pass from le Carre are the victims of the imperial games:  the workers, the students, the farmers, the fisherman, the ordinary people who end up paying the ultimate price, time and again.  Le Carre’s writing is sarcastic, biting, angry, and sometimes howlingly funny, but behind his black humor is the painful political truth about the self-righteous shits who run our world, or want to.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #93: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

What some deprecatingly call “chick-lit” plus a murder mystery all rolled into one: how can you go wrong? I found this book by Australian author Moriarty mostly delicious, written with a woman’s often profound, often funny insight into relationships—spousal, parental, neighborly and otherwise–and with a brilliant sense of timing.

The Husband’s Secret is the story of three families–or three women–whose separate lives eventually intersect painfully, then tragically, in a well-orchestrated plot that is rife with mystery, intrigue, betrayal, lust, incest, and murder – and a large dollop of humor. Her characters are all too human, with all the flaws and foibles, strengths and sensibilities, night terrors and daylight insecurities that all of us suffer at one point or another in our lives. In fact, we can all too easily place ourselves in any one of their places, and see how easily our well-planned lives can falter, and even crumble apart like theirs.

Cecilia is the supreme organizer of her circle of family and friends, the perfect wife and mother to her three pretty daughters, PTA president, and a model Tupperware party-giver. When the story opens, she is lamenting her proper but oh-so-unremarkable life and wishing for a bit of drama. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!  Rachel is the elderly manager of St. Angela’s elementary school in Sydney, where Cecilia’s children go to school. She is a walking tragedy to those around her, due to the unsolved murder of her daughter Janie 25 years earlier, and the more recent death of her husband. Unrelieved anguish is the air she breathes, and her sole reason for being is her 2-year-old grandson, whose parents are about to whisk him off to America and out of Rachel’s life.

Finally, there is Tess, whose husband and best friend/cousin have informed Tess that they are in love with each other. A stunned Tess takes her 6 year old son and flies to Sydney to live with her mom and where she plans to enroll her boy at St. Angela’s. Enter hunky 40-something Connor, beloved P.E. teacher at St. Angela’s and Tess’ former boyfriend.  In a rage at her husband, Tess sees Connor as a prime candidate for a sexual fling, while Rachel decides that Connor is a prime candidate for her daughter’s murderer. Into this mix comes a dusty old letter from her husband that Cecilia innocently stumbles upon in her attic, containing a secret that rips off the patina of complacency in her life.

The fact that the letter doesn’t appear until nearly half-way through the story is cleverly designed to build up anticipation, and it’s an effective device. I also appreciated the way Moriarty gives us private glimpses into a wide variety of relationships, while using self-reflection on the part of several of her characters to show how easily we can derail ourselves with our own insecurities. Finally, I found especially clever the epilogue that Moriarty offers us, which supplies all the “what ifs” that may have run through our heads throughout her story, and which provokes the all-important question: how might our own lives have taken a different path, if only….

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #92: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

A brutally funny debut novel about India in which an impoverished but ambitious young man from a small rural village determines to rise in a society splintered by economic and social inequality, no matter the cost. The book is written in the form of an ongoing letter—composed over the course of seven days—in which our young man looks back at how he became an Indian “entrepreneur,” and addresses his letter to the Chinese premier who is about to visit India for an official introduction to Indian entrepreneurship. Don’t listen to the government, says Halwai, listen to me if you want your people to learn how to make it as entrepreneurs.

And thus we learn how Halwai goes from the kowtowing and much-abused cleanup “spider” in an Indian teashop, to bicycling delivery boy, to chauffeur for a wealthy Indian family, to murderer and fugitive, and finally, to owner of a growing taxi service. Halwai starts out smart and witty, and along the way, he discovers that a moral code is useless in a society which runs on bribery and corruption.  He pokes fun at religion (“I should start off by kissing some god’s arse. But which…? There are so many choices. The Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods. Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses  to choose from”) and at India’s grand claims of independence (“India has never been free. First the Muslims, then the British bossed us around. In 1947, the British left, but only a moron would think that we became free then.”)

Particularly revealing is Halwai’s “rooster coop” philosophy on life. He says India’s poor are like roosters crammed into a coop so tightly that all their effort is focused on breathing and getting enough food to survive, and not on escaping the coop. Or, as he puts it in the starkest socio-political terms: “Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many…. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.” A rather dire view of life in India, but one that Halwai is determined to break with, and so he does, but at what cost?

An excellent and very provocative book, which not only gives us a painfully penetrating view of the gross hypocrisy of the wealthy elites in India (and, by implication, elsewhere), but also raises the bigger question of how to define morality. Is it an abstract concept, or is it one defined by context?  A good subject for the next book club discussion, to be sure.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #91: Celebrity in Death by J.D. Robb

I don’t usually waste my time reviewing pulp novels, but this one had a little more oomph to it and a little less fluff, and I so thought it worth a few stars and commentary. A movie is being made about the infamous Incove case covered in Robb’s Origin in Death novel, and top-flight Hollywood stars have been chosen to portray our heroines Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her partner Detective Delia Peabody, along with their respective spouses, co-workers, and inner circle. The real NYC cops Dallas and Peabody are obliged to consult periodically with their fictional counterparts, and a fabulous dinner for the real people and their celebrity dopplegangers at the home of the film’s producer turns into Eve’s next case when the star playing Peabody is discovered floating face down in the home’s rooftop pool. Accident or murder?

It turns out that everyone disliked K.T., a drug-abusing (if talented) bully with a penchant for blackmail, and while nearly everyone had a motive for murder, there isn’t enough evidence to pin it on anyone. But Eve, ever the bulldog and assisted by her gorgeous billionaire husband and his electronic wizardry, begins to chip away at the case until it starts to reveal itself. The plot is well-constructed, the characters are colorful, the sex scenes are—for once—kept to a minimum and more tastefully done than usual (although the book’s language is a little spicier), there’s a little more humor, and while Eve is portrayed as hard-ass as ever, she does begin to show a more vulnerable side as she digs into the backstories of some of the characters she is investigating. I would say that It is about time that the author allows Eve to grow a little, and not stay the same cardboard action figure she has been for so many of the “In Death” novels.

Equally interesting, I thought, was the picture the author portrays of Hollywood. While not unfamiliar to your average American audience, the fact that Hollywood is neither all black nor all white—neither corrupt and seedy, nor all glitter and glitz—gives this story a certain verisimilitude that resonates. Good for you, Nora.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #90: The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva

Silva’s first book, written before the famous Gabriel Allon series, surprised me with its heavy emphasis on history and much more nuanced characters than his later books offer. I found myself impressed both by Silva’s successful handling of an oft-told if fascinating period of history, and by effective combining of a satisfying political thriller with the personal stories he managed to weave so effectively into the intrigue of the times.

The Unlikely Spy takes place in 1944 in England, where the outcome of the Second World War now relies heavily on the quality of the intelligence and counter-intelligence each side can draw on. History professor Alfred Vicary has been drafted into MI-5 by none other than Churchill himself to run a dis-information operation against the Germany. He is in charge of turning captured Nazi spies, and using them to feed disinformation to German intelligence. He learns that there is a long-buried “sleeper” agent in London who has been activated to uncover the time and place of the Allied landing in France, and must identify the agent while protecting “Operation Mulberry” at all cost.

Vicary is a fascinating character, not one of the political elite but an unassuming professorial sort with a laser-like intelligencel. He has discovered to his surprise that he has a real talent for covert intelligence, but is constantly frustrated by the roadblocks deliberately thrown in his path by his immediate superior at MI-5, Sir Basil Boothby, who appears to be hiding some serious secrets. At the same time, we get to meet a cast of historical figures on the German side, from Hitler, Himmler, and Rommel, to Canaris and Schellenberg, and watch their deadly rivalries play out against the backdrop of war.

And then there is “Catherine Blake,” the beautiful and murderous sleeper agent who almost—but not quite—gets to throw WWII’s victory to the Nazis through her seduction of Operation Mulberry’s chief engineer, American Peter Jordan. Although Silva takes pains to give us an in-depth picture of Blake’s own history, including the fact that she has been blackmailed by the Nazis into becoming one of their super-agents inside England, Blake is nonetheless a scary stone-cold killer who never wins our sympathy. She also never strays too far from the cliché of the femme fatale, which is a notable weakness in Silva’s plot.

Perhaps most fascinating, for me, was the stunning wrap-up at the end of the book, where we not only discover the much deeper waters than ran under the intrigue Vicary was striving so mightily to unravel, but also what lengths the British were willing to go to deploy their psychological spycraft against their own, all in the name of what Kipling so famously called “The Game.”   Well done, Mr. Silva.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #89: The Chair by James L. Rubart

The Chair is a feel-good novel about restoring one’s faith in oneself through embracing Christianity. Rubart takes a handful of decent but damaged individuals and exposes them to various temptations and challenges, along with evil from an unexpected source, and leads them—and presumably us, his audience—to the conclusion that happy endings are just waiting for us, if we’ll just believe!

 A sweet old lady dumps an ancient chair on young struggling antiques shop owner Corin Roscoe, and strongly hints that it was built by Jesus Christ. When a young sick child appears to magically heal after sitting in the chair, Corin starts to believe in miracles, and when his life-long claustrophia disappears, he is nearly convinced.  This is the point at which Corin starts to hope that if he can just get his paraplegic brother Shasta to sit in the chair and heal, that his world will be right again. Corin is a danger junkie, and is responsible for pushing his reluctant younger brother into a ski jump ten years earlier that paralyzed him for life and for which Corin has neither been forgiven, nor forgiven himself.

Corin’s terror of water, stemming from a near drowning as a child, doesn’t leave him no matter how many times he sits in the chair, however, and Corin is sorely tempted when a charismatic evangelical preacher pressures Corin to sell him the chair so that he can cure himself of his various “weaknesses of the flesh.”  Corin could finally get out of debt if he takes the offer, but something doesn’t smell right about the preacher and he backs out. Break-ins, beatings, even death threats, follow. Corin’s attempts to talk about the dilemma he faces with his new girlfriend are rebuffed; Tory is fiercely anti-religious and has no sympathy for the crisis Corin is going through. The little old lady comes back into Corin’s life and turns out to have a special relationship with him. The action escalates, turns violent and even deadly, but the bad guys eventually lose and the brothers, well, take a wild guess?

The writing isn’t terrible, but it is a bit sophomoric, and I guess the fact that I finished the novel means the plot kept my attention, at least long enough to find out whether Corin and the chair ride off into the sunset together. What I can’t figure out is why, if the author wanted to proselytize, he went and chose as his “hero” a young man suffering enough mental anguish—claustrophia, hydrophobia, a severe guilt complex, adrenaline addiction, and more—to fill an entire mental ward. Perhaps Corin is supposed to represent “Everyman,” but does he have to be afflicted with Everything?

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review # 88: The Sanctuary by Ted Dekker

For some reason, the last two library books I randomly picked up turned out to be the literary equivalent of “Christian rock.” In a word, awful! The first, which I will review here, is “The Sanctuary” by Ted Dekker. It is purportedly a debate on sacrifice and love, and the possibilities of rehabilitation and salvation–all wrapped in the bloody garb of a psycho-thriller. Yikes! The second, which I will review next, is “The Chair” by James L. Rubart.

The Sanctuary is about a “Christian” warden, who somehow manages to get complete and total charge of a new and innovative prison and brings under his wildly sadistic heel a former priest-turned-vigilante serving 50 years for murder. By the time the novel comes to an end, we learn there was also a revenge factor going on with regard to the ex-priest, but in the meanwhile, the poor guy–along with several hundred other  inmates caught in the psycho warden’s spider web–are slated to be broken in body and spirit, allegedly in order to be re-born whole and clean, at least according to the warden’s demented view of the world. The story is told both from the standpoint of the ex-priest’s seriously neurotic girlfriend, who gets trapped in the spiderweb as she tries to help him, and that of the ex-priest himself, who has taken a vow of non-violence … a little bit too late, it appears.

The biggest problem with The Sanctuary, apart from its oxymoronic conceit, is that the “hero” ex-priest we are presented with is a very disturbed character who, due to his ravaged and violent youth, is a sympathetic victim but hardly a hero. His girlfriend, who launches herself into insanely violent situations without a thought in the world about the consequences, is so dumb as to be laughable. In fact, the storyline is terrifying, the plot is filled with sadistic torture, the characters are cartoonish and absurd, and the ending downright ridiculous. A surprise in the plot thrown at us near the end is just about the novel’s only redeeming quality.

Scattered throughout the novel are lengthy lectures and contemplations on the nature of spiritual redemption, but they are almost a mockery of what they are clearly intended to be, due to such blatant manipulation of the reader by the author. All in all, a disaster of a book. How it got so many positive reviews is beyond me!

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #87: The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

Doig hits another home run! The Bartender’s Tale is a great coming-of-age story peopled with colorful characters against a backdrop filled with history, humor, and pathos.

Once again, Montana plays home to Doig’s tale, this one centered around Tom Harry, famous owner of the Medicine Lodge bar in Gros Ventre and, previously, of the Blue Eagle bar in Fort Peck which had serviced many of the 10,000 employees of the U.S. government in the 1930s brought into that tiny speck of northern Montana when the Fort Peck Dam was built under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Tom’s first wife left not long after their son Rusty was born, and the boy spent his first six years being raised in Arizona by an aunt whose sons made life a living hell for the little boy. But then Tom reclaimed Rusty, and father and son dedicated themselves to forging a life around the bar which was the centerpiece of their existence and Gros Ventre’s last refuge, as well. Rusty’s life is happier, but still a lonely one until Zoe moves into town with her parents, and the two children become as one, sharing a total fascination with life that is as exuberant and optimistic as Doig himself.

Tom is getting ready to sell the bar and create a more normal life for himself and his son when Proxy, a former lover from the Fort Peck days, arrives on the scene with a 21-year-old daughter in tow with the same ink-black hair that Tom and Rusty share. Proxy wants Tom to teach their daughter Francine how to run the bar, and ultimately take it over, and life suddenly becomes very complicated for Tom and Rusty. Thrown into the mix is Del, a student of  “lingua Americana,” a “word catcher” from the East who latches on to Tom in hope of getting access to the many and varied characters who have flowed in and around Tom’s life and who represent the last vestiges of a dying language as Montana moves increasingly into the modern era.

Rusty and Zoe are a bridge between those two eras, and are as endearingly clever as Paul Milliron was in Doig’s “The Whispering Season.”  The reader finds oneself yearning for the simpler days of their childhood, and yet sees them growing and changing as the century matures. The Bartender’s Tale is a thoroughly delightful novel as nostalgic for the past as it is hopeful for the future.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #85 & 86: Work Song and Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig

I reviewed the first novel, The Whistling Season, last year in Cannonball Read IV, and am happy to report that I found Work Song and its sequel Sweet Thunder, to be delightfully worthy successors to the first in this loose trilogy by consummate Montana storyteller Ivan Doig. Instead of the prairie and one-room schoolhouse of The Whistling Season, the backdrop for Work Song and Sweet Thunder is the battleground of the labor unions vs. the huge Anaconda Copper Mining Company in the aftermath of the Great War. Since the second and third books are nearly continuous, I will review them together here.

It is 1919, and we find our hero Morris Morgan returned to Montana after a 10-year hiatus, this time seeking his fortune in the bustling copper town of Butte, known at the time as “the Richest Hill on Earth.”  His trunk containing all his worldly possessions goes wayward on the railroad, and so he starts out with little in his pocket but fantasies of Gold Rush-style wealth filling his head. The fantasies prove to be short-lived, but Morrie’s  widowed landlady Grace soon becomes the apple of his eye, and he ends up siding with the sorely aggrieved copper miners against the all-powerful Anaconda company.  Along the way, Morrie encounters a host of lively characters like the speedy “Russian Famine,” the wizened old miners Hoop and Griff, company thugs Eel Eyes and Typhoon Tolliver, a hot-headed IWW organizer named Quinn, the mysterious Highliner, editorial hatchetman Cutthroat Cartwright, his vivacious former student Rabrab, and many others. But it is the larger-than-life Samuel S. Sandison, a former rancher turned chief librarian of Butte (who is also known as “The Strangler” among other sobriquets), who becomes a driving force in Morrie’s increasingly complicated life.

Morrie’s jobs range from funeral home “crier” at the wakes of Irish victims of mine disasters, to Sandison’s factotum (and accomplice) at the library, to the unofficial mouthpiece of the union’s battle against Anaconda. It is only natural that in his many roles, he manages to attract the deadly attentions of hired Anaconda goons, rival bootleggers, and the Chicago mobsters who know his true identity and from whom he fled a dozen years earlier. But it is Sandison and Morrie’s shared worship of all things literary that was, for me, the pure joy of thes novels. Doig manages to cleverly introduce pithy Latin sayings, limericks and song, quotes from Shakespeare and a score of other poets, novelists, philosophers and educators, even mini-lectures ranging from mythology to musical composition, without ever once being heavy-handed or ponderous or boring. In fact, I came away feeling, well, educated! Imagine!

The tale Doig presents of the real-life three-way battle between the mining union, the IWW (“Wobblies”) and the Rockefeller-owned Anaconda company, at the time the fourth largest company in the world and acknowledged “colonial owner of the state of Montana,” as one historian put it, is thrilling enough. He also manages to give us an intimate picture of the many immigrant populations that poured into cities like Butte, each seeking to hold onto their cultural identities while struggling to become Americans. And he gives us a host of unforgettable heroes to root for. With his lively wit, his profound sense of history, and his literary prowess, Doig has given us a truly irresistible combination.


Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #84: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

After having thrilled to See’s novel “Snowflower and the Secret Fan,” I was rather disappointed by her next novel Shanghai Girls. I felt the story was emotionally shallow and at the same time melodramatic, and while the history of Shanghai is interesting, it is stagnant, told through the eyes of two women who never really break from their spoiled past and grow up and see the world as it has evolved.

Now See has penned a sequel to Shanghai Girls, called Dreams of Joy. It is better than its predecessor but still left me somewhat flat and uninvolved. In Shanghai Girls, well-off sisters Pearl and May barely escape the Communist Revolution in China and flee to the U.S. with little more than Joy, the baby May was pregnant with from a prominent artist back in China. They make a life for themselves in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, but it is not tremendously interesting and they are less than appealing as main characters. At the end of the book, things quickly and painfully conclude with a suicide and 18-year-old Joy’s sense of betrayal by her family. She sneaks into Communist China, now undergoing its 1950s Great Leap Forward, determined to hunt down her artist father and to join the ongoing Maoist revolution.

Dreams of Joy begins where Shanghai Girls leaves off, with Pearl returning to the country she had vowed to turn her back on in pursuit of her willful and idealistic daughter. Pearl becomes a much more interesting character in this sequel, while May remains behind in the US and is viewed primarily through her letters and Pearl’s own reminiscences. Joy meets her handsome, romantic, artist father but is blind to the fact that he is being forced to play out a role in order to survive Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She ends up living in a small village, married to a man who is not what he had seemed, and bearing a child just as the villagers begin to starve to death under Mao’s insane dictums. Pearl ends up in Shanghai, sharing her looted family mansion with former servants and squatters and becoming a garbage collector to survive while waiting for Joy to come to her senses. The spoiled Joy, meanwhile, is rapidly shedding her ideals about Maoist China and is forced to grow up in a hurry to keep herself and her baby alive.

While the picture of Communist China that See paints for us is as brutal as one can imagine, her writing has taken on the quality of what I would call “reverse propaganda,” more intent on painting the horrors of the Great Leap Forward than in giving us a more sensitive and profound portrayal as in “Snowflower.” The ending of Dreams of Joy is a little too sweet, a little too neat, a little too Hollywood-ish. Not bad but not great either.