Britain & the Confederacy

Title: Our Man in Charleston:
Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Author: Christopher Dickey
Genre: History (American Civil War)
Pages: 400
Rating: 4 of 5

This book provides a unique Brit’s-eye view of the American Civil War. Even though “Secret Agent” appears in the subtitle, don’t expect a convoluted spy yarn. This is the story of British consul Robert Bunch whose tireless activities mostly involved schmoozing politicians and sending his superiors reports on the society and goings-on in Charleston (and the South in general).

Bunch’s disgust for slavery and the cruel, pompous hypocrisy of Charlestonians high society filled his reports as he kept his superiors abreast of the political developments up to and beyond South Carolina’s secession. With his Southern friends and acquaintances he hid his disdain well enough that none of them realized how much he abhorred their “peculiar institution” and how foolish he found the “fire eater” secessionists. According to the author, Bunch’s reports on slavery in the South and the possible revival of the African slave trade contributed heavily to Britain’s refusal to fully recognize the Confederacy (good man!).

Besides offering Bunch’s point of view, the book gives a decent overview of the national political maneuvering before and during the war. This includes both the jockeying to preserve slavery that led to secession*  and relations between Britain and both the USA and CSA. The political maneuverings involving Britain and the African slave trade were something with which I had only a passing acquaintance from previous study, so I found them particularly interesting.

The one major weakness that I found with the book is that the author almost always paraphrases or summarizes Bunch’s reports rather than quoting them at any length. I’m not sure if there are any direct quotes that are longer than a sentence in the entire book, and precious few of even that length. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit sparse and interpretive even for a popular level history book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and appreciated reading about the Civil War from a different perspective.

 

 

* The “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that portrays slavery as a red herring is unsustainable in light of primary source material (e.g. secession documents) even if you ignore Bunch’s eyewitness accounts

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

Espionage & the Afterlife

Title: Summerland
Author: Hannu Rajaniemi
Genre: Espionage Thriller / Alternate History / Supernatural Fiction
Pages: 304
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/26/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

The overall plot of this book follows a mole hunt on the order of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, in this alternate 1938 death is merely a transition into a different dimension (or something) that still interacts with the world of the living. “The Great Game” continues on both sides of death as the British and Russian Empires vie for supremacy with the Spanish Civil War as their chessboard.

I won’t go into much detail about how Summerland (where dead Brits go) and the Presence (the Soviet collective afterlife) work because gradually discovering how this world operates and what kind of effect the meaninglessness of death has on society is half the fun. The actual spy storyline is well-plotted, incorporating historical characters and events and heading in an unexpected direction by the end.

Unfortunately, there were a few issues with the writing style that detracted from my enjoyment of the book: weak characterization that made it hard to tell characters apart, stilted dialogue due to no one using contractions, and too much time spent on our protagonist’s relationship woes. Some of that may be my own personal preference or exhausting schedule lately, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds interesting. The author has created a fascinating world, and I would love to read another book set there.

MI-6: The Old Boys’ Club

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by [Macintyre, Ben]Title: A Spy Among Friends:
Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: True Crime / Espionage
Pages: 328
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is a tale of cold-blooded betrayal by a charismatic double agent and of monumental incompetence by his colleagues at MI-6 who sheltered, enabled, and defended him for several decades . Soviet mole Ken Philby (and associated traitors in “the Cambridge five”) wreaked havoc in both the British and American intelligence communities, compromising operations and costing the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Ben Macintyre examines Philby’s career with a focus on his friends/dupes in the intelligence community, especially his closest friend and most loyal defender, Nicholas Elliott.

Clearly, the authors had to wade through massive amounts of self-justification and obfuscation in writing this book, so we are getting version of the story of which a definitive version is probably impossible. That being said, his presentation is convincing, well-sourced, and hangs together well. MI-6 is portrayed as an above-the-law “old boys club” that couldn’t be bothered to do serious background checks on “gentlemen” and refused to believe that one of their own class could really be a Soviet agent (even when presented with damning circumstantial evidence by MI-5 and the CIA). I think that the author was trying to be as nice as possible in his portrayal of Philby’s friends, but to me Nicholas Elliott comes off as a class-blinded moron and naive fool of the first order.

After reading this, it is easier to understand the cynicism in the spy novels of Graham Greene and John LeCarré (the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based on Philby). Overall, it was a fascinating book, though largely in a “can’t look away from the tragedy being brought about by arrogant fools” kind of way.

Farewell to George Smiley

I just finished the last two books in my read-through of John LeCarré’s George Smiley stories. Reviews of the first seven books can be found here, here, and here. These last two books (written over 17 years apart) both take the form of reminiscences by aging spies associated with Smiley. I’m pretty sure that The Secret Pilgrim was supposed to be the last book, but LeCarré couldn’t leave well enough alone. Whether he was bored, broke, had a nagging discontentment with Secret Pilgrim, or something else, I’m glad he wrote A Legacy of Spies because it was a much more satisfying farewell to the pudgy little spy. Below you’ll find shortish reviews of the last two books and my final recommendations on which five of the nine books I think are really worth reading.

Title: The Secret Pilgrim
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 335
Rating: 3 of 5

This is basically a collection of loosely connected short stories strung together in the memory of an aging spy as he listens to the retired George Smiley answer the questions of eager young recruits. The theme of the stories seems to be “I’m a nasty philanderer and all the spy work I did was pretty much pointless, petty, and wasteful of human life including my own.” LeCarré always has seedy characters and a healthy dose of “is the spy business worth the human cost?” in his books, but he’s definitely in full bleak mode for this one.  George Smiley gives some final words of wisdom before bumbling out the door for the last time, but it’s all pretty vague and unsatisfying (which I suppose is typical George so it kind of works). Overall: well, written as always, but far from my favorite.

Title: A Legacy of Spies
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 265
Rating: 4 of 5

In this final (I assume) book, Smiley’s protege, Peter Guillam, is called in from his tranquil retirement in France to answer for his actions during operation Windfall (otherwise known as the events recorded in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). This book is largely an excuse to show what was going on before, after, and behind the scenes in that book since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold focuses almost entirely on the field agent involved rather than those pulling the strings (aka Control and George Smiley assisted by Peter Guillam).

LeCarré covers completely new material (mostly relating to setting up the mission and its aftermath) rather than subjecting us to watching the exact same scenes play out from a slightly different point of view. As an added bonus, in one brief aside we also get to find out what happened to Karla after the events of Smiley’s People. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.

The framing story (Peter Guillam answering for his involvement in the mission which resulted in multiple deaths) just kind of petered out, but not before we finally get a relatively solid answer from George Smiley on what his “higher cause” was that kept him going all those years in spite of the beating his conscience took every time he destroyed someone’s life. Overall, I enjoyed it (though the “look how much of a womanized Peter Guillam is” got a bit old) and it was a nice end to the series.

 

Recommendations on which books to read (unless you’re a glutton for punishment like me and want to push through all of them):

You know how with the Star Trek movies only the even-numbered ones are worth watching? George Smiley has something similar going on, but I’d recommend the odd numbered books:

#1 – Call for the Dead – Worth reading as a good introduction to major characters and a decent story in its own right

#2 – A Murder of Quality – Not terrible, but not a spy novel either. George solves a murder at a boarding school. If you really like George it’s an okay read, but it contributes little to characterization or overall plot.

#3 – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – If you only read one John LeCarré novel, make it his one! This is THE Cold War spy novel. It is fairly stand-alone, but you would benefit from reading the relatively short Call for the Dead first.

#4 – The Looking Glass War – Probably my least favorite book of the series…incredibly bleak.

#5 (Karla Trilogy #1)-  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  George Smiley goes on a mole hunt. The events of this excellent book (based on the discovery of real life traitor Kim Philby) heavily impact the rest of the series.

#6 (Karla Trilogy #2) – The Honourable Schoolboy – A thoroughly seedy protagonist and overlong storyline that rather aimlessly rambles all over the conflict zones of the Far East make this pretty meh, and it does practically nothing in terms of advancing the Smiley vs. Karla conflict.

#7 (Karla Trilogy #3) – Smiley’s People – The endgame between Smiley and Karla isn’t as intricate as some of the other books, but is well worth reading.

#8 – The Secret Pilgrim – The author is in an extremely bleak mood again and George does relatively little in the book.

#9 – A Legacy of Spies – As stated above, a fitting end to the series (but it will make very little sense if you haven’t read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold).

Smiley Vs. Karla

Last year I started reading through all of John LeCarré’s George Smiley novels (you can find reviews of the first four here and here). I just finished books 5-7 which make up the Karla Trilogy. These three books pit George Smiley of The Circus (MI6) against his nemesis from Moscow Centre (KGB), the shadowy Karla. The books can be read independently but are much better together.

Title: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 400
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Control, head of the Circus, is dead (cancer) and his legacy in shambles after a disastrous operation into Eastern Europe. The old guard (including George Smiley) have been retired or shuffled off to unimportant corners of the institution…but it looks like someone in the new leadership is a Karla-trained Soviet mole; a mole who may have been in place for decades. The main plot follows George Smiley and his few trusted allies on their methodical mole hunt.

The story can be a bit fragmented and confusing (e.g. it takes quite a while to see the relevance of the opening story line), but this is part of the brilliance as Smiley slowly pulls all the pieces into place to make a coherent picture. Some of the action and leaps of reason toward the end were almost too elliptical to follow (thus the half-star deductions), but it’s obvious why this is a classic of realistic spy fiction.

Title: The Honourable Schoolboy
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 624
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Following the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Circus is a shadow of its former self, largely dependent on “the cousins” (CIA) for actual fieldwork. Combing through the damage done by the mole, George Smiley (now the interim head of the much reduced intelligence agency) discovers an opportunity to interfere with and profit from Karla’s intelligence apparatus in the far East. Much of the story is based in Hong Kong and branches out through various conflict zones in the waning days of the Vietnam War. It focuses mostly on an unreliable, womanizing British field agent who uses his cover as a reporter to travel around and pry into all kinds of sordid corners.

To me the book seemed meandering and overlong. LeCarré seems more interested in describing the horrors and corruption of Southeast Asian politics, warfare, opium smuggling, etc. than he does in really advancing the Smiley vs. Karla storyline. Many of the George Smiley bits felt more like maneuvering characters into place for the next book than anything directly related to the plot. Overall, it’s not terrible, but it’s the weak middle book of a great trilogy.

Title: Smiley’s People
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 416
Rating: 4.5 of 5

George Smiley is retired (again), but when he is called upon to routinely tidy up after the death of one of his former agents (a Russian defector), he stumbles across what might be a last chance to destroy Karla. He unofficially assembles many of his old associates and makes one last push against his Soviet equal. In the end we will find out just how alike or different the conscientious Smiley and zealot Karla are. This isn’t as intricate as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it is an excellent and fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

Recapturing the Glory Days

The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels Book 4) by [le Carré, John]Title: The Looking Glass War
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 290
Rating: 3.5 of 5

It’s time for the next installment in my read-through of the George Smiley Books (you can find my reviews of the first three books here). In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, LeCarré made an effort to show the ugly, amoral side of the intelligence game. Dissatisfied with the effect (since some readers still regarded some of the characters as heroic), he wrote this bleak spy yarn.

Rather than the relatively competent intelligence agency known as the Circus (basically MI6), this book centers on “The Department.” The Department is a pathetic remnant of an agency that ran military intelligence during WWII. It is now filled with stodgy, self-important old men (and one young man) who do very little besides archive the occasional intelligence report and dream of the good old days as the Circus gradually takes over more and more of what they used to handle (Smiley, Control, and others from the Circus make some appearances as the two agencies interact).

When a potentially important report of highly questionable authenticity crosses the director’s desk he sees it as an opportunity to run an operation and return to the glory days (the way it was “during the war”). What follows is an incredible display of incompetence and disregard for human life driven by pride, nostalgia, and inter-agency jealousy. You could almost call it a farce, but it isn’t at all funny…just pathetic and depressing.

Overall, the book is well-written, and the characters ring sadly true…it’s just incredibly bleak.

A Pudgy Little Spy

With the recent release of A Legacy of Spies I’ve decided to read through all nine of John LeCarré’s George Smiley books. The first seven will be re-reads for me, but last time I read them a bit out of order and spread out over several years so I’ll get a more coherent story this time. George Smiley is a stodgy, wistful little academic who is happier studying obscure German poets than moving (and sacrificing) human chess pieces during the Cold War. Unfortunately, his brilliant mind and sense of loyalty continually pull him back into the world of “The Circus” (basically, MI6). Here are mini-reviews of the first three books:

Title: Call for the Dead
Author:
John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 172 (including 15-page intro)
Rating: 4 of 5

A member of the Foreign Office commits suicide after a seemingly positive interview with George Smiley following an anonymous denunciation. Details just don’t add up, and the more Smiley examines the matter the less sense it makes. Smiley has a more actively-in-the-field investigative role in this book than he does in many of the others, but it is a good introduction to his character (as well as his protege Peter Guillam  and a major character from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). The style and themes are fairly typical of the other Smiley novels with plenty of twists and turns, not a lot of high action, and a clear depiction of the ugly human cost of the Cold War spy game.

Title: A Murder of Quality
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Murder Mystery
Pages: 173 (including 15 page intro)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is the odd one out of the George Smiley books in that it has nothing to do with international espionage. We find Smiley, during one of his not-employed-by-the-Circus phases, pulled into the investigation of a murder at a prestigious boarding school. Despite being purely a murder mystery, LeCarré preserves the same world-weary tone as his other books. I must say that from the writings of Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and John LeCarré I have a pretty dim view of English boarding schools since they are consistently portrayed as havens of snobbery, brutality, and other perversity. Overall, this is a decent mystery that indulges in some cutting social commentary and does some character development of George Smiley, but it is probably completely skippable if you’re in this purely for the spy stuff.

Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5!

This is THE Cold War spy novel! It features an intricate chess game between the Circus and the Abteilung (LeCarré’s version of East German Intelligence) centering around a plot to eliminate the head of the Abteilung. George Smiley is very much in the background of this book, doing things behind the scenes as others take center stage. In addition to a masterful plot where nothing is as it seems, the book delves into concerns about the brutal pragmatism and wastefulness of human life by both sides. The spy business is ugly and LeCarré is perfectly willing to point it out without offering nice pat answers that make us feel good about the moral superiority of “our side.” If you only ever read one Cold War espionage novel, this is the one to read! It can definitely be read by itself, but, if you have the time, the relatively short Call for the Dead provides helpful backstory that makes for a richer reading experience.

A Bit Too Hercule Poirot

Title: The IPCRESS File
(Secret File #1)
Author: Len Deighton
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 230
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I prefer the realistic-if-depressing John LeCarré flavor of spy thriller to the uber-macho Ian Fleming variety. The blurb at the start of this book said that the press used it to “beat Ian Fleming about the head” when it came out at the same time as the first James Bond movie, so I decided to give it a shot.

Unlike most of the other spy fiction I have read, this was narrated in the first person by a somewhat shady member of British intelligence (Deighton has no illusions about how nasty the spy business is). This gave it a similar feeling to a lot of the old hard-boiled detective stories, complete with a lot of jargon and slang that took a little while to get used to but added good color to the story. I was also impressed by the appendices in the back that gave some back-story at appropriate points, increasing the impression that this actually happened.

The plot seemed a bit all over the place, and it was hard to figure out how things connected and if there was some kind of overriding plot that our hero was supposed to be foiling. Sometimes this works in spy novels as everything ties together in the end, but I wasn’t very pleased with the resolution on this one. It turns out that our narrator has been holding back information and knew more-or-less what was going on a lot of the time but didn’t bother to let us in on any of it until the end. It was a bit too Hercule Poirot for my taste. Aside from that, it was well-written enough that I’ll probably be giving Deighton another try sometime soon.