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Posts Tagged ‘A Legacy of Spies’

Read any good books lately? Of course you have. Me too, and you know which ones if you’ve been reading this blog. But that hasn’t stopped me from reading others’ year-end lists to see where we overlap or disagree or what I should add to my TBR.

This holiday, as usual, I’m wrapping up books as gifts for friends and family. My top pick this year is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which is as gorgeous inside as out, a sweeping Victorian tale with Gothic shadings. Then there’s Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, an imaginative, moving novel of love, war and refugees: “We are all migrants in time.” Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin is the darkly funny story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life at the same time that her brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies echoes with old lies and loves as George Smiley’s protege Peter Guillam revisits the long-ago case that was the centerpiece of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

In crime fiction, Anthony Horowitz’s clever Magpie Murders pays homage to the cozy Golden Age detective story and the cutthroat world of contemporary publishing. In Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke explores race and justice when a black Texas Ranger becomes involved in two murders in East Texas. Michael Connelly jump-starts a new series with The Late Show, and Sleep No More collects six short stories by the late P.D. James. Australian writer Jane Harper made her debut last winter with the thrilling The Dry, and follows up with Force of Nature this coming February.

I read nonfiction mostly in newspapers and magazines, which then leads me to good books such as David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. I also can recommend Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Up next for me is Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries, which came out a few weeks ago and which a good friend has put under my Christmas tree.

Then there are the several books I’ve read recently but haven’t had time to write about.  Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak (Penguin, digital) follows a dysfunctional British family with two grown daughters and plenty of secrets quarantined over Christmas because one of them has been exposed to an Ebola-like virus. The plot stretches credibility, but the characters are appealing and the ending was unexpectedly moving. Jane Austen fans will appreciate Katherine Reay’s clever The Austen Escape (Thomas Nelson, digital galley), in which Austin, Texas engineer Mary joins estranged friend Isabel on a holiday to Bath, England. There they stay at a manor house and dress up in Regency clothing with other Austen fans, and all is well and good until Isabel has a mental lapse and thinks she really is a Jane Austen character. Finally, the new Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery, Bryant and May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) finds the two aging, eccentric police detectives tracking a possible serial killer knocking off victims in London parks. Lots of funny business, witty writing and a killer ending.

Happy holidays, everyone. May your days be merry and bright with many, many books.

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When Hurricane Irma made a mess in Central Florida last month, I ran away to the Circus. Cambridge Circus, that is, headquarters for John le Carre’s legendary British Secret Service and spies like George Smiley. In A Legacy of Spies (Viking Penguin, hardcover gift), Smiley, long retired, haunts the memory of  his protege Peter Guillam, called out of his retirement in Brittany for a reckoning with the past. Remember Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? He had a son, now grown, who blames the Circus for his father’s betrayal in the long-ago Operation Windfall, which Smiley oversaw at Control’s behest. A new generation with little or no memory of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall demands Guillam revisit the mission and its old files with the intention of erasing any embarrassment or responsibility. Guillam reluctantly complies, and le Carre artfully unlocks the puzzle of past and present, of old lies and loves, an agent called Tulip. It’s vintage le Carre, with references to Smiley’s nemesis Karla and the search for the mole detailed in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but also the silky prose, the mordant wit, the moral ambiguity clouding the whole in every shade of gray. And, finally, Smiley — “grown into the age he had always seemed to be.” By George, it’s good to see him.

There were other windfalls. Celeste Ng’s new novel Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, purchased hardcover) begins with a two-story house in picture-perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio, going up in flames, then goes back in time to chronicle the events leading up to the conflagration. Ng has talent to burn — read her Everything I Never Told You — and is a mesmerizing storyteller. When free-spirited artist Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl move into a modest rental house owned by the affluent Richardsons, the two families’ lives intertwine. Quiet Pearl is soon enamored by teenagers Lexie, Trip and Moody, their seemingly carefree wealth, and admires their mother, organized reporter Elise. But the youngest Richardson, unruly Izzie, is drawn to Mia’s unconventionality and reticence about her past. Then the proposed adoption of a Chinese-American baby by friends of the Richardsons divides loyalties and reveals secrets. Sides are chosen, boundaries crossed. What does it mean to be a mother? Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the Clinton ’90s, but the issues it raises and the emotions it evokes are timely and timeless.

Just thinking about Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) makes me smile. Rich with whimsy, deliciously odd, it reminds me of nothing so much as Sloan’s first novel, the endearingly quirky Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Sloan fused books and technology and a touch of magic in that book. In this one, food combines with the tech world of robotics; as for the magic, that would be the sourdough starter that software engineer Lois Clary inherits from two immigrant chefs forced to leave San Francisco because of visa problems. Lois isn’t much of a baker, but even her first attempts with this starter taste wonderful. The cracks in the crust seem to smile, and Lois realizes the starter itself burbles melodically. It soon will change her routine life as her bread gains her entry first to the company cafeteria and then to an odd farmers’ market. Can she teach a robotic arm to bake? Or will the starter revolt?  Talk about wonder bread!

I generally veer away from “how-to” books, favoring fiction over DIY.  So it’s ok that Victoria Henry’s How to Find Love in a Bookshop (Viking Penguin, digital galley) doesn’t actually give directions to finding romance among the shelves. This sweetly predictable novel of books connecting hearts is just the ticket for escape. Nightingale Books enjoys a central location in a lovely English village, which makes it prey for real estate developers. Emilia Nightingale, who suddenly inherits the bookshop when her father dies, has to figure out a way to keep the little store going or watch it turn into a parking lot. Fortunately, the town’s book lovers band together to keep the shop open, and several of them discover love in the process, including Emilia — maybe. The object of her affection, an old family friend, is otherwise engaged, but a charming single father is definitely interested. Other would-be couples include the terminally shy caterer who has a crush on the cheesemaker, the famous visiting author who recognizes an old flame at his book signing, the stay-at-home mom with business skills who suspects her commuter husband of having an affair. Then there’s Sarah, the wealthy older women with a secret. Nightingale Books is well worth a visit.

Salman Rushdie’s satirical, Gatsby-like novel of New York City during the Obama Years, The Golden House (Random House, digital galley), is like an extravagantly rich cake. The main characters — wealthy patriarch Nero Golden, his three grown sons, the supermodel second wife, the observant narrator, the crass politician — are larger-than-life, and it’s as if Rushdie has written the whole with a Bedazzler. It was all too much, and I only read about half before setting it aside. I may get back to it one of these days, maybe not.

I was all too happy to finish to Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, digital galley), a beautifully written book about an ugly subject. Martin Alveston, a disturbed survivalist, physically and sexually abuses his 14-year-old daughter Turtle, who is desperate to please him. She intimidates her middle-school classmates and scorns those who might help her, then meets high school student Jacob. The promise of friendship leads her to question the value system instilled in her by Martin and will ultimately end with a violent reckoning.

Jennifer Egan’s  Manhattan Beach (Scribner, digital galley) is quite different from her award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, being a more traditional historical novel.  It has the expanse and depth of an ocean as Egan details the story of Anna Kerrigan, who becomes a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, seeks answers to her bagman father’s disappearance, and becomes involved with gangster Dexter Styles. While still working as a machinist at the Navy Yard, Anna visits a nightclub with a girlfriend, who asks her if she’s an angel. “Anna was aware of the rattle of fall leaves over the pavement, the gardenia smell of Nell’s perfume. No one had ever asked her that question before. Everyone simply presumed that she was. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not an angel.’ “

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