Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Divisions in a country or a population are rarely stark unless they are right in front you-unless you’re directly affected. This was obviously not true of Berlin in 1949, the title location of this spycraft offering by Joseph Kanon. The Wall was obviously a fact of life for the people, with capitalism and communism standing side by side for all of the world to see, and of course such a place became a hothouse of espionage, similar to Istanbul after WW2, which, incidentally is the setting of another Kanon thriller called Istanbul Passage (which I now want to read).

The main character in Leaving Berlin is Alex Meier, a Jewish writer who settled in the United States after the War. After a brush with the warmhearted politics of the McCarthy trials, Meier is offered the chance to “clear” his name by returning to Berlin Berlin and reaching out to his old family friends in order to give the newly founded CIA an agent inside the divided city. Needless to say, it all goes downhill from there.

This is the first book by Kanon I’ve read, and it has ensured that this will not be the last. He paints a vivid picture of the shabby glamour and desolation of Berlin, and of the struggles of the people who are just trying to survive after having a brutal separation imposed on them by outside forces after the horrors of WW2. The mystery itself proceeds at a slow but steady pace, with plenty of time for characters to be introduced. One minor difficulty I did encounter was that two of them had very similar last names, which necessitated a bit of page-turning to remember who was who at one time. And of course there are no clear-cut bad guys and good guys, just people living in an extraordinary time and place.

It’s a gently despairing story (but still quite entertaining), which is probably true of most spy stories, since living with lies and no one to trust is probably one of the toughest occupations in the world. In the 1950’s at least you might hear from a physical source if someone was talking about you or giving away secrets and information was easier to find, but in these days of social media there are layers upon layers of data and stories to dig through. I wonder if the semi-mythical days of Bond were more fun for spies?

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Our Man In Charleston by Christopher Dickey

Living as I do a short distance from Gettysburg, due to sheer repetition the facts and battles of the Civil War have honestly never been very interesting to me. I’ve avoided the various museums and exhibits featuring items from that time, and in general have been a poor student of local history. However, a recently purchased book about the Civil War has kept my attention, much to my own surprise.

        Our Man In Charleston touches upon a little-considered aspect of the War: that of the international response to our homegrown conflict. Established nations such as Britain naturally had diplomatic representatives stationed in various cities across the young United States. These individuals lobbied for favorable trade rights, hosted visiting dignitaries, and in general kept their government informed about the inner stirrings of the American political animal. A consul could be a valuable witness and resource to his superiors during a time of unrest, and the time leading up to the Civil War was certainly one of those.

Britain was firmly against the slave trade that kept the American South competitive in the cotton trade, and a series of problems between the nations on this issue had convinced the English that they needed a more complete knowledge of the area. Robert Bunch was a career politician who wanted a challenge, and so he was appointed the local consul for the area and instructed to learn as much as he could about the area and local feeling in regards to slavery in general, as well as to change local laws that put British-born African sailors in danger. In order to do so, he was also required to convince the influential citizens of Charleston that he shared, or at least condoned, their own bigoted and cruel system of slavery, when in truth he held them in a deep contempt, as did the majority of British citizens.

The book is an interesting examination of the careful tightrope Bunch was forced to walk in order to do his job in a time when both his neighbors and the Northern government were constantly on the alert for any hint of disloyalty. It also includes character portraits of many of the important figures of the era such as Judah Benjamin who, for good or ill, feature in the events of the era. I’d highly recommend it to any student of the Civil War or even history in general. It’s the unknown or unheard stories that are often the most interesting.

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The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb

I’ve read a lot of books, probably hundreds, spanning a wide variety of subjects and most genres. I love reading, and usually carry a book with me wherever I go, which obviously makes doing anything a lot more difficult. I also like recommending books to people and just in general discussing them with anyone. That’s why I’m writing this particular review: as a warning.

The Fifth Sorceress is a terrible book. Probably one of the worst I’ve ever read. The ideas, characters, and most everything else are either cliches or originally awful. I found nothing to like or recommend about this in any way, and regret the time and money wasted on buying and reading any part of it.

The plot is thusly: A group of three evil sorceresses (and ONLY women are evil magic-users in this world) tried to take over the kingdom and were only defeated after a long war. Instead of simply killing them, they were abandoned on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. Apparently five are needed to take over the world, and one got away.

Thousands of years later, a young prince named Tristram (who is called the “Chosen One” at birth.  No, I’m not kidding.) is the target of the plot by another sorceress to take their revenge by kidnapping his twin sister and turn her to evil. After Tristan is forced to kill his father by an unmemorable bad guy, he sets out with his wizard friend Wigg(!?) to get his sister back.

There’s a lot of weirdness and bad ideas in these books. For example, magic is divided into two parts: the good Vigors and the evil Vagaries. Only men use the first, of course. Discovering the evil magic turns the sorceresses into sadistic constantly-horny pansexual villains. An oft-quoted line from the book describes it thusly:

“And then, surprisingly, the acute unfulfilled desires had come. One day, while struggling to understand one of the more arcane passages of the Vagaries, she and the others had all felt the unexpected stirrings of their loins. The hugely sexual, needful longings had been intensified by an insanely irresistible desire to inflict those same sexual needs upon others.

Of both genders.”

Oh, the horrors. Normally I’d hesitate to use the word “misogyny’ without good cause, but here there’s a great deal of evidence to support the label. The author seems to have some real issues about women, and isn’t shy about sharing them. I’d write more about it, but the utter lack of of good writing in general has basically acted on my interest or concern for this review the same way a drunk’s urination will destroy a child’s sandcastle, and with the same level of style and taste. Even that tortured and disgusting metaphor is better than The Fifth Sorceress.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

H. P. Lovecraft had a particular style-lots of weirdly descriptive words, edging right up to the description of horrors without ever giving us a clear picture. He also had several themes that he kept coming back to: vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. He had real issues with miscegenation pretty much everyone who wasn’t a white man, including Jews, black people, and people of low class. This fear and influence creeps into almost everything he wrote, and can be a nasty shock to people reading them for the first time.

Author Victor LaValle (who has a pretty Lovecraft-y name himself) grew up reading Howard Phillip Lovecraft, and he didn’t absorb the issues that obsessed the author at first. However, as a young black man it was difficult to overlook. This inspired him to write a story of his own: The Ballad of Black Tom. It deals with vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. Set in New York in 1942, it follows the story of Tommy Tester, a young man who makes his money by making secret deliveries all over the city, as well as by pretending to be a “bluesman” by carrying a guitar  and pretending to play in parts of the City where the sight of a black man is a rarity. On the hunt for a good spot, he is approached by a strange old man, and the real adventure begins.

“Ballad” is not a long book-92 pages, but LaValle packs a lot into it-Tommy is a fun character, and the story does manage to create a feeling of cosmic horror around each corner of the City. It’s not a story about that per se and LaValle doesn’t write in the same florid style as Lovecraft, but the flavor is the same, while also delivering a picture of the prejudice and police brutality of the time, issues that we have happily overcome in our own century.

Check it out if you like Lovecraft, historical writing and want to meet an intriguing  writing talent.

 

 

Will Thomas’ Some Danger Involved

Back after a long absence….

This was an impulse pickup from the library. The Victorian detective novel is obviously a genre that seems like a challenge for your first novel, given the gigantic shadow that Sherlock casts over it, and I was curious to see how Thomas would shake things up. If he would add any twists or innovative ideas to the detective/sidekick pairing or the setting, thereby putting his own stamp on the concept.

The mystery is set in Victorian London, and is chiefly concerned with the increasing Jewish population of the city. This has led to conflicts and tensions on both sides as this historically-persecuted group attempt to find a new home where their ways rub the nerves of the solidly Christian majority. When a young Jewish man who looks very similar to the popular image of Jesus is found crucified, a detective with a close relationship to the Jewish community, Cyrus Barker, is called upon to investigate soon after he has hired his new assistant.

Sadly, I found very little of the sort. The protagonist, Thomas Llewelyn, is a down-on-his-luck Welsh lad who has spent time in both Oxford College and prison, and it is this odd history that recommends him as an assistant to Cyrus Barker, a well-known “enquiry agent.” This background doesn’t seem to add anything to Thomas’ identity, and indeed his personality isn’t well fleshed-out, though his backstory is solid. If the book had been about him as an assistant inheriting Barker’s practice, it would have been more interesting, in my mind. Unfortunately, this is not so, and we meet Mr. Barker. His backstory, why he always wears spectacles, and his eccentric methods and staff attempts to create a sense of mystery that falls flat. I understand that Mr. Thomas was attempting to follow the same path as Arthur Conan Doyle in gradually uncovering the character of their detective, but there just isn’t much there there once the story is told.

Barker is as unfailingly omnipotent as Holmes, but he doesn’t seem to have the same flashes of personality, instead depending on quirk to fill in the blanks. He has a vast and already settled network of contacts (and in fact a passage of Doyle’s regarding Moriarty’s spiderweb of influence is paraphrased by Barker) so that we’re along for the ride, but never encounter something or someone new or different without Barker’s presence, so that there’s no sense of discovery. Investigating the mystery itself seems to consist of talking to the chief suspects and little else, and the reveal of the killer, as well as his motive, is pretty anticlimactic. I got the sense that Will Thomas more wanted to display his skill at creating a picture of the time and people who might have existed in it than he did in making an engaging mystery. Indeed, there is an entire chapter dedicated to Llewelyn’s time working in a rabbi’s house over Passover which could easily have been snipped out, given that it did not advance the plot at all.

I will add a caveat here: many of the issues I had with the story can be easily forgiven because of the book’s place as the first of an apparently popular series. Finding your voice as a writer is no easy task (which I well know as someone who hasn’t discovered his own) and Thomas certainly has the skill to keep it going. If you read Some Danger Involved and don’t care for it (as I didn’t) then give the next one a try (as I will). It may grow on you.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

Sherlock Holmes has of course left an indelible mark on culture in the West. There are video games, TV shows, movies, and a horde of books that have dissected every facet of the stories by Conan Doyle. The original books have been reprinted a multitude of times, and a lot of authors have taken the opportunity to write their own additions to the Holmes universe, whether in the form of new mysteries or with a twist, as in  Neil Gaiman’s A Study In Emerald and Kim Newman’s The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, which featured Holmes more well-known enemy, Professor Moriarty.

The Italian Secretary doesn’t have any such alterations; it’s a straight mystery written in Doyle’s style (and therein lies the problem; more on that later). The story itself is set in the town of Edinburgh, and features mysterious doings at the Holy Palace of Holyrood. Deaths have been reported, and a mysterious note has summoned Holmes himself to investigate a crime that, it is suggested, may threaten the Queen herself.

The Holmes stories themselves are fun to read, but in my opinion their great flaw is the omnipotence of the Great Detective as far as allowing people to solve the crime themselves. He picks up on every clue, knows the name of everything and everyone he encounters, and has a massively wide array of skills. Those are staples of the series, but they make reading the old stories slightly annoying in my eyes,  writing a new mystery difficult, and reading one even more so. There’s little suspense or sense of danger to the main character obviously either, but if the surrounding people are well written that doesn’t matter.

That is in effect here, as Carr’s Holmes is always on top of the game and rarely puzzled by anything he encounters. He gathers information from everywhere, bringing out ideas and facts from the barest evidence. Again, I understand that it’s a tradition of the mysteries, but it can be grating at times. Mycroft Holmes shows up as well, but has little impact on the events apart from being the impetus for his brother’s involvement in the following investigation.

The story itself is an odd hodgepodge of ideas, mixing cruel noblemen, Scottish Nationalism, mysterious deaths, and the possibility of supernatural forces at work (which in itself is a dubious idea in Sherlock’s world, given his firm adherence to practicality and logic). The death of David Rizzio, a real murder that contributed to the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a central theme, and I would be willing to bet that the idea of using the assassination was in place first as a subject of the book and Carr built the Holmes mystery around it.

Caleb Carr is a good writer, there’s no denying that; his previous books were entertaining and vivid. It makes me wonder if his writing is stronger when using characters he has created or fleshed out himself as opposed to those who have been stamped so firmly into their places by many previous hands, including the original creator.

If you enjoy Carr’s writing or the Sherlock mysteries, by all means give The Italian Secretary a read, and I hope you enjoy it more than I did. The Holmes stories are an acquired taste, and it’s possible I haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps I’ll try this one again some day.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

 

Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys by Candace Savage

It’s always fun when you can discover an interesting subject in a book found by random at a yard sale. These hidden treasures are sometimes more valuable than a book from a store or as a gift, because you are basically getting the luck of the draw.

A recent outing rewarded the trip with a short but fascinating book about one of the most common but iconic animals: the crow. It’s an in-depth examination of the discovery that they have surprising intelligence and social skills. Their familiar place as messengers and emissaries of dark forces in stories and legends are no surprise when a clever brain is added to their shadowy feathers and diet of carrion.

Candace Savage is both educational and engaging in this book, detailing stories and experiments performed by scientists who study these birds. Crows have been documented to both perform problem-solving and use/create tools to get food, a behavior that was previously only seen in primates and dolphins. In addition, the crows demonstrate the ability to learn from each other by copying a technique that they observed another bird using to eat.

The social patterns and relationships of the birds are likewise analyzed, with the discovery that some demonstrated bonds that make no sense outside of some type of family attachment-grown birds that hang around the nest or come back months after they’re grown, bringing food and caring for the young ones.

Another fascinating area is the communication between birds. The crows are reported to each have their own calls and borrow noises from new acquaintances, as in the case of a couple of ravens who were given a new neighbor. At first the twosome ignored the newcomer, until the newbie learned to use the specific notes the other two sang. Once these were used, they accepted the new crow into their tiny flock.

Interspersed with the scientific data are various stories and legends about the crow, rook and raven, from a wide variety of cultures. All of them accord the black bird a place as a clever being, such as Huginn and Muninn, spies and messangers of Odin, lord of the Norse pantheon.

Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys is not a long book; only about 105 pages. But it is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts about these ubiquitous yet uncommonly-fascinating birds that we see every day. I would recommend it to anyone interested in animal intelligence, birds, or just nature in general. I can guarantee that you will learn something new about the members of the Corvus family.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.