A Legacy of Spies

The other year, in preparation for a novel I hoped would have more intrigue and action than I was used to writing, I decided to break with my comfort zone and read a few spy novels to deconstruct the genre and see how the action was set up and paced. I’d read a James Bond novel once and was less than impressed; the movies I loved so much were horribly dull novels, and the book-Bond looked much more like Truman Capote than any pretty-boy actor.

I didn’t want to waste time, so I Googled “best spy novels”, and one of the top two on almost every list was John LeCarré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so that was the one I read first.

The lists were right. The book was brilliant, and I couldn’t put it down. After that I rushed out to watch the 2012 BBC film version, an incredible cast including Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and more – which was still excellent, though some people prefer the 1979 mini-series adaption with Alec Guinness (that’s Obi Wan Kenobi to some of you). The strangest part was that, while reading the book, I had already cast Toby Jones in one of the roles in my head  –  but as Peter Guillam, though, not Percy Alleline as he was in the film.

Why so good? Well, see – like Ian Fleming, John LeCarré (real name: David Cornwell; spies aren’t allowed to use their real names to publish novels) was an actual British spy in World War II, so he knows the ins and outs and tiny little details of how the game is played, layers upon layers of secrets and trades and double-dealings. He’s lived it first hand, and that makes all the believable difference. He began writing novels in 1961 (Call for the Dead), but it wasn’t until his third novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, that he hit the best-seller list and wound up quitting MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to pursue writing full time.

While all of us sit here and think, why would you quit being an awesome spy to write books?

But LeCarré certainly is good at it, with more than 24 novels to his name, almost all of them best-sellers. Several have been made into successful film adaptions, including The Constant Gardener (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, and the recent delicious adaption of The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, a book that reads more like a James Bond adaption than a Bond novel does.

Unable to sit still in retirement, LeCarré, now 86, has pumped out yet another novel last year, A Legacy of Spies, a conclusion of sorts for George Smiley’s people, his ex-agent who keeps coming back. Pulling his best-loved characters from so many of his novels, LeCarré manages to weave them together with new characters in present-day, finding new depths and bringing new truths to light, even after 50 years. LeCarré shows that time has not diminished him nor his characters, and if you think you know how it will end, like all of his works, it’s pretty well guaranteed you don’t.

Give le Carré a try. If you like mystery, espionage, intrigue, and unraveling puzzles with characters who won’t let you go, then you’ll love his work. If you haven’t tried him, he’s a wonderful place to begin to explore the genre. For modern novels, he’s rather clean, without a lot of graphic violence or sex or language, perhaps making the stories even more remarkable. Start with Legacy of Spies and work backward, or start at the beginning and work forward. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there are more than ten films, five television adaptions, and four radio plays to keep you entertained. You’ll be so glad you did.

Embracing Earth Day

In January 1969, off the shores of Santa Barbara, California, on oil rig received a waiver to use a protective casing 61 feet shorter than Federal regulation allowed. The rig exploded with such force the sea floor cracked in 5 places. Three million gallons of crude left a 35-mile oil slick on California’s shores, and television brought images of ruined beaches and dying, oil-soaked animals into every home.

It was the flashpoint of the modern environmental movement.

So horrified were people that politicians banded together to pass the Environmental Protection Act (1970), the Clean Air and Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973) as they realized the impact pollution was having on the country. And spearheading that, as a result of that oil spill, Earth Day was born on April 22, 1970, to raise awareness and bring people together to discuss environmental issues.

The Troubling Truth

Earth in 1970 was a very sorry place. We knew we were in trouble since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought toxic issues to the forefront in 1962, but we did little. Air pollution killed scores of people through respiratory disease (a 1952 smog inversion killed 12,000 people in London. A 1966 attack in New York City killed 168 people in just 3 days. Smog.) Factories, farms, and mines dumped waste everywhere. Love Canal was killing children with 30-year old toxic waste. The Bald Eagle, symbol of our country, was hovering at less than 500 nesting pairs remaining, and (by 1987) the California Condor would drop to 27 remaining individuals, due to DDT (which made eggs fragile) and lead poisoning. The dropping rates of biodiversity were becoming obvious.

Environmental Victories

And with all the discussion and science, changes began to happen. DDT was banned in 1972. Leaded gasoline was phased out in 1973. Lead-based household paint was banned in 1978. Flame retardants were phased out of infant clothing (because babies have such capacity to spontaneously combust after sunset). Pesticides were examined, and many were quickly banned from use. And amazingly, the Earth began to recover. Today the Bald Eagle is off the endangered species list, with more than 5,000 nesting pairs noted – I almost drove off the highway when I saw one sitting on a light post in the Catskills. A living, wild, Bald Eagle. A few California Condors have been re-released into the wild, with more than 400 individuals now living wild or in captivity. New trucks and buses have 99% fewer emissions than those in 1970. The Hudson River now has fish again.

A Long Way Still to Go

While Earth Day and a commitment to protecting our environment – and thus ourselves – has spread around the world, the world remains a very, very polluted place. Toxins from the 70’s still lurk in the oceans. Oil spills remain in beach sand and marshes. The US boasts more than 1300 Superfund sites for government clean-up – 26 in Connecticut, and a former one here in Cheshire. Around the world, developing countries lack regulations and power to deal with toxic waste – China’s air quality is deadly due to coal-fired factories belching out pollution. Africa is poisoned by heavy metal mining. India suffers from toxic manufacturing chemicals. Lake Karachay in Russia is the most polluted place on Earth: an old dumping ground for nuclear waste, standing on the shores of the lake will kill a human in no more than an hour – far more deadly than the radioactive Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters, which will haunt us for thousands of years to come. Microbeads are choking animal life. Pesticides believed to be linked to some forms of autism still hide in lakes, and toys, furniture, and clothing manufactured in Asia can still contain lead and chemicals long-banned elsewhere.

The Importance of Individuals

While we may blow off our green recycling bins and never return our bottles, those little things, combined, make a big impact. Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy needed to produce new ones from ore. One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, lessening the greenhouse effect. One ton of recycled plastic saves 16 barrels of oil – $1,000 per ton. Multiply that by all the people in your town, your state, your region – and think how that snowballs. So celebrate your cleaner environment on April 22. Plant a tree. Pick up garbage on the side of the road. Recycle your bottles. Take a walk and look at all the diversity of trees and flowers and birds around you, and breathe deep of air that doesn’t burn your nose and eyes and make you cough (does anyone else remember the stink of the Uniroyal plant when the wind would shift in 1970’s summers?) Marvel at the sight of fish in the Naugatuck River, where nothing survived before. A clean planet is in our grasp. Give a hoot, don’t pollute, and save paper by checking these books out from the library!

            

                                  

                                  

 

What If…? 10 Books about Alternate Histories

I love alternate history stories. That infinite “what if?” tantalizes me. What if Abraham Lincoln was not assassinated? What if Germany won World War II? What if London was a city populated by humans with extraordinary powers? What if, what if, what if?

Speculative fiction that delves into alternate time streams or alternate histories can take many forms. Some veers off into the paranormal, some follows the “what if the other side won” theme, some just imagines a new world that sits parallel to our own world.

Whichever way you like your alternative history, we have a great selection of titles. Here are ten to get you started.

 The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln  by Stephen L. Carter (Available as a Book and Audiobook on CD)
What if Abraham Lincoln escaped assassination by John Wilkes Booth?
This novel imagines what might have happened if Lincoln had lived to face the tumultuous post-war politics of 1865 Washington, D.C., including an impeachment trial for overstepping his Constitutional authority during the Civil War. At the novel’s center is Abigail Canner, a young black woman recently graduated from Oberlin, who is hired by the D.C. law firm that is working on Lincoln’s defense.

 Bombs Away : The Hot War by Harry Turtledove (Hardcover)
What if the Cold War had suddenly turned hot?
President Harry Truman in desperate consultation with General Douglas MacArthur, whose control of the ground war in Korea has slipped disastrously away. The only way to stop the Communist surge into the Korean Peninsula and save thousands of American lives is through a nuclear attack. MacArthur advocates a strike on Chinese targets in Manchuria. In actual history, Truman rejected his general’s advice; here, he does not. The miscalculation turns into a disaster when Truman fails to foresee Russia’s reaction.

 The Madagaskar Plan  by Guy Saville (Hardcover)
What if Germany had won World War II?
The year is 1952. There is peace in Europe, but a victorious Germany continues to consolidate power in Afrika, and Hitler has approved the resettlement of European Jews to the remote island of Madagaskar. In Mozambique, British forces plan to free Madagaskar, relying on the expertise of Jacques Salois, an escaped leader of Jewish resistance, they plot to incite a colony-wide revolt. Into this roiling landscape arrives ex-mercenary Burton Cole, who scours shanty towns and work camps for his beloved Madeleine and their child.

 Smoke : a novel by Dan Vyleta (Hardcover)
What if people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours from their bodies?
In an alternate England, Thomas, Charlie, and Livia notice that some people appear to be able to lie without triggering Smoke. As they dig deeper, they discover revolutionaries who are fighting against a secret police force. They begin to suspect that everything they have been taught about Smoke is a lie; but if that is a lie, what else about their world is lies?

 Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (Available as a Book, Downloadable Audiobook, and Audiobook on CD)
What if there was life on other planets in our solar system?
In an alternate 1986, where talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family., Severin Unck starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets.

 Crooked by Austin Grossman (Hardcover)
What if Richard Nixon was a pivotal figure  in a struggle between ordinary life and horrors from another reality?
In this novel, Richard Milhous Nixon faces down the Russians, the Chinese, and ultimately his own government. Here for the first time– in his own words– are the terrifying supernatural secret he stumbled upon as a young man, the truth behind the Cold War, and the truth behind the Watergate cover-up.

 Bring the Jubilee: What if the South Had Won the Civil War? by Ward Moore (E-Book)
What if the South won the Civil War?
What is left of the United States has been drained of its resources and is trapped in a depression. Hodge, a young man living in a village in rural New York with his parents, decides to head to the city to escape his otherwise inevitable future of poverty and indentured servitude. But the specter of war between the Confederacy and the other great global power, the German Union, haunts the entire region, and a nationalist terrorist group has other plans for Hodge.

 Hystopia by David Means (Hardcover)
What if John F. Kennedy survived his assassination?
At the bitter end of 1960’s President John F. Kennedy is entering his third term in office. The Vietnam War rages on, and the president has created a vast federal agency, the Psych Corps, dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary. Soldiers returning home from the war have their battlefield traumas “enfolded”—wiped from their memories through drugs and therapy—while veterans too damaged to be enfolded roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and reenacting atrocities on civilians.

 Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters (Available as an Audiobook on CD, Book, and Downloadable Audiobook))
What if there had never been a Civil War?
It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smart phones, social networking, and happy meals–save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred. A gifted young black man calling himself Victor is working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service.  In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called “the Hard Four.” On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn’t right–with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.  Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines.

 The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (Hardcover)
What if robots had been invented in the 17th century?
Soon after a Dutch scientist invented the very first Clakker (a mechanical man, endowed with great strength and boundless stamina — but beholden to the wishes of its human masters) in the 17th Century, the Netherlands built a whole mechanical army. It wasn’t long before a legion of clockwork soldiers marched on Westminster, and the Netherlands became the world’s sole superpower. Three centuries later, it still is. Only the French still fiercely defend their belief in universal human rights for all men — flesh and brass alike. But one audacious Clakker, Jax, can no longer bear the bonds of his slavery. He will make a bid for freedom, and the consequences  will shake the very foundations of the Brasswork Throne.

The Irish in Fiction: 10 New Books

It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day and what better way to celebrate than with some new fiction that either takes place in Ireland or has main characters who are Irish. So when you’re wearin’ the green you can also be reading the green, too.

 

 Murder at an Irish Wedding by Carlene O’Connor
(Available as a Book and Downloadable Audiobook)
Any wedding is a big deal in the small village of Kilbane-even more so when the bride is a famous fashion model. It’s also good for business; Siobhan O’Sullivan’s bistro will be catering the three-day affair. When the drunken best man is dis-invited, Siobhan’s own beau, Macdara, gladly steps in. But finding the original best man murdered in the woods casts a pall over the nuptials. And when a second member of the wedding party is poisoned, Macdara goes from being best man to prime suspect.

 

 Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan
At the start of the twentieth century, a young girl and her family emigrate from Lithuania in search of a better life and end up in Ireland.
In 1958, a mute Jewish boy locked away in a mental institution outside of Dublin forms an unlikely friendship with a man consumed by the story of the love he lost  two decades earlier. And in present-day London, an Irish journalist is forced to confront her conflicting notions of identity and family when her Jewish boyfriend asks her to make a true leap of faith. These three arcs, which span generations and intertwine in unusual ways, come together to tell the haunting story of Ireland’s all-but-forgotten Jewish community.

 

 Days without End : a Novel by by Sebastian Barry (Available as an Audiobook on CD, Book, E-Book and Downloadable Audiobook)
Entering the U.S. army after fleeing the Great Famine in Ireland, seventeen-year-old Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, experience the harrowing realities of the Indian wars and the American Civil War between the Wyoming plains and Tennessee.

 

 The Stolen Child : a Novel by Lisa Carey
St. Brigid’s Island is a place that people move away from, not to–until an outspoken American, also named Brigid, arrives to claim her late uncle’s cottage. Brigid has come for more than an inheritance. She’s seeking a secret holy well that’s rumored to grant miracles. Emer, an inhabitant of the island, has good reason to believe in inexplicable powers. Yet Brigid has a gift too, even more remarkable than Emer’s. As months pass and Brigid carves out a place on the island, a complicated web of betrayal, fear, and desire culminates in one shocking night that will change the island, and its inhabitants, forever.

 The Last Night at Tremore Beach by Mikel Santiago
Recently divorced and in the middle of a creative crisis, Peter Harper decides to take shelter on Ireland s scenic and isolated Tremore Beach. But after he is struck by lightning after one stormy night, he begins experiencing terrible headaches and strange dreams. As the line between his dreams and reality begins to blur, Peter realizes that his bizarre dreams may be a warning of horror still to come.

 Through Your Eyes by Shannyn Schroeder
Deirdre Murphy has had her life planned for her since she was born: Work in her parents’ noisy pub in rural Ireland. Live with her family until she marries. Marry her childhood sweetheart ASAP, since he’s decided sexy fun time should wait for marriage. None of it excites her. But before her fate closes in, Deirdre’s got one last visit to her Chicago cousins–where she can spend her mornings in a peaceful bakery, keep to herself, and savor the space she needs… Until she meets Tommy O’Malley.

 Saints for all Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
(Available as an Audiobook on CD, Book, E-Book, Downloadable Audiobook, Large Print Book)
Nora and Theresa Flynn are twenty-one and seventeen when they leave their small village in Ireland and journey to America. Nora is the responsible sister; she’s shy and serious and engaged to a man she isn’t sure that she loves. Theresa is thrilled by their new life in Boston and besotted with the fashionable dresses and dance halls. But when Theresa ends up pregnant, Nora is forced to come up with a plan–a decision with repercussions they are both far too young to understand. Fifty years later, Nora is the matriarch of a big Catholic family with four grown children and Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. A sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago.

 Beyond Absolution : a Mystery set in 1920s Ireland by Cora Harrison
Reverend Mother Aquinas must discover who murdered a much-loved priest in the third of this compelling new Irish historical mystery series. Pierced through to the brain, the dead body of the priest was found wedged into the small, dark confessional cubicle. Loved by all, Father Dominic had lent a listening ear to sinners of all kinds: gunmen and policemen; prostitutes and nuns; prosperous businessmen and petty swindlers; tradesmen and thieves. But who knelt behind the metal grid and inserted a deadly weapon into that listening ear?

 The Irish Inheritance : a Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery by M J Lee (Downloadable audiobook)
July 8, 1921. Ireland. A British Officer is shot dead on a remote hillside south of Dublinches. November 22, 2015. United Kingdom. Former police detective, Jayne Sinclair, now working as a genealogical investigator, receives a phone call from an adopted American billionaire asking her to discover the identity of his real father. How are the two events linked? Jayne Sinclair has only three clues to help her: a photocopied birth certificate, a stolen book and an old photograph. And it soon becomes apparent somebody else is on the trail of the mystery: a killer who will stop at nothing to prevent Jayne discovering the secret hidden in the past.

 Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict
Clara Kelley is not the experienced Irish maid who was hired to work in one of Pittsburgh’s grandest households. She’s a poor farmer’s daughter with nowhere to go and nothing in her pockets. But the other woman with the same name has vanished, and pretending to be her just might get Clara some money to send back home. Serving as a lady’s maid in the household of Andrew Carnegie requires skills she doesn’t have, answering to an icy mistress who rules her sons and her domain with an iron fist. What Clara does have is a resolve as strong as steel coupled with an uncanny understanding of business, and Andrew begins to rely on her. But Clara can’t let her guard down, not even when Andrew becomes something more than an employer.

A Delicious Mystery Series

I recently stumbled on the Verlaque and Bonnet mysteries by M.L. Longworth. These delectable stories are set in Aix-en-Provence and begin with Death at the Château Bremont.

Death at the Château Bremont‘s description says “Antoine Verlaque, the handsome chief magistrate of Aix and his sometimes love interest, law professor Marine Bonnet, investigate the death of a local French nobleman who fell from the family Chateau in charming and historic Aix-en-Provence.”

Simple, non? Well, that one-sentence blurb does not even begin to cover the colorful world waiting for you within its pages. Not only do you get a good mystery, the descriptions of the town and countryside are a virtual tour of Provence. Longworth, who has lived there since 1997, obviously loves her adopted home.

And the food! As the characters eat and drink their way though the story, I often became more engrossed in their meals than in their sleuthing. They partake of fine wines and cheeses. They visit vineyards and cafes.  They meet friends for scrumptious dinners at small restaurants owned by skilled chefs. I was completely consumed by lifestyle envy.

The story is liberally sprinkled with passages such as this:

He tore open the cannele and bit into the soft inner cake made of rum and vanilla. Crusty and caramelized on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside, it was perfect.

The mystery floats in the background as the characters sit in cafes consuming fine French food and debating the merits of various wines. Verlaque often despairs of Marine. He is a gourmet and she will eat anything! Still, they enjoy an on-again, off-again love affair amid some meals that made me want to pack and move to France.

There are currently six books in this cozy mystery series. Warning: They are not only a good read, they will make you hungry!

Murder in the Rue Dumas

Death in the Vines

Murder on the Île Sordou

The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne

The Curse of La Fontaine