Multiple Unreliable Narrators

Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M. R. Carey
Genre: Psychological Horror?
Pages: 512
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/6/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book is messed up…and I mean that in the best possible way! I love unreliable narrators (especially of the quite-possibly-bonkers variety), and this book is full of them. Our two main characters have suffered physical and emotional trauma (trigger warning for spousal domestic abuse & peril to children), and they both know that it has left them with psychological issues.

Liz has discovered a dark, violent side that first surfaced when she had to defend herself against her murderous ex-husband, and Fran, a teenager, has had hallucinations and other mental aberrations since surviving an abduction as a child. As their lives intertwine (Liz’s son becomes Fran’s friend), their interactions and perspectives on each other give us some hints of what is really going on while things spin increasingly out of control…and I can’t go into any more detail than that without spoilers.

There were a few points in the book where I felt that the teenage characters’ catty bickering and sneaking around to keep parents/adults in the dark took this into clichéd YA territory, but overall I enjoyed it. I would highly recommend it if you enjoy the kind of book where you get popped right into the action and have to figure out what is going on (and even what genre you are reading).

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.

Hackish Pulp/Noir on Steroids

Title: Killing Floor
(Jack Reacher – Book 1)
Author: Lee Child
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Pages: 407
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I know a couple people who are really into the Jack Reacher novels so I decided to give them a shot. This felt like what some of the more hackish pulp/noir authors of the 1920’s-50’s would have written if they had been allowed to use more profanity and gore.

The first person narration is clipped with 3-5 word sentences and fragments galore (and way too much info-dumping). Our protagonist/narrator is a bit of a sociopath. He is brutally, murderously pragmatic in how he handles his enemies, clinically and remorselessly describing the violence he is inflicting on them. For him, law and order might be useful tools, but they get in the way as often as not. His relationships with people he “likes” could be described in terms of protectiveness and/or mutual lust but are otherwise cold.

The overall plot wasn’t especially plausible, even for this kind of story: the coincidence that gets him involved in whatever shadiness is going on in small-town Georgia defies credibility; one minute he is making deductions of Sherlockian complexity and the next is missing painfully obvious clues; police officers chirpily go along with (or at least turn a blind eye to) his murderous and illegal activities; and I could go on. The bad guys’ conspiracy and government’s response to it is riddled with absurdities, but I don’t want to spoil it so I’ll leave it at that.

Overall, if you’re into violent but intelligent tough-guy characters you might enjoy this, but I think I’ll stick with the hacks from the 20’s-50’s when I’m in the mood for this sort of thing…I prefer snark to profanity and am okay with violent scenes not describing the sensation of a person’s skull shattering.

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).

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
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.

A Trope Is Born

Image result for the 39 steps book coverTitleThe 39 Steps
Author: John Buchan
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 120
Rating: 3 of 5

John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and its various movie adaptations were influential in developing the modern version of the “innocent man on the run with maybe a dash of political intrigue” plotline. The danger of reading a book that invented (or at least popularized) a literary/cinematographic trope is that by now you have probably read/seen the trope many times before, and some of the imitations surpass the original. Reading this was like reading a stripped-down less-glamorized version of North by NorthwestThe Fugitive, The Bourne Identity, etc.

During the first chapter I was afraid the plot was going to rest on extremely racist presuppositions (a bit like Sax Rohmer’s  Fu Manchu / “yellow peril” books), but the author quickly toned down the anti-Semitism. Overall, it was a fun, escapist adventure story (that had obviously been originally serialized), but that’s about it.

Also, I’m using this for my “Classic With a Number in the Title” over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Oh what a tangled web…

Title: Our Man in Havana
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 222
Rating: 4 of 5

This spy novel isn’t quite an outright farce but it shows the ludicrous side of the intelligence game. When a British expatriate who works as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana is practically forced to become an agent of British intelligence he has no idea how to proceed. Acting on advice from his German friend he simply makes up agents and intelligence and soon “our man in Havana” is one of the British intelligence community’s more valuable assets. The web of deceit (and bewildered bumbling ineptness) that follows is by turns humorous and tragic (I won’t tell you which note it ends on).

Overall, this was an enjoyable book (much more so than LeCarré´s copycat Taylor of Panama that had a much grimmer tone). Not only is the story entertaining, but you are treated to a backdrop of pre-revolutionary Cuba…not a very edifying spectacle, but interesting. This is definitely worth a read as relatively realistic spy fiction (as opposed to the James Bond secret agent style) or even just as a man-trapped-by-circumstances kind of classic.

Blackwater & Whistleblowing

Title: A Delicate Truth
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Thriller/Espionage
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

You don’t read anything by LeCarré to get warm happy feelings. He unflinchingly portrays the seediness, cynicism, and brutality of the (under)world of British intelligence. His novels set during the Cold War are frequently depressing but brilliant. This book, with a more current setting is unmistakably LeCarré, but doesn’t measure up to the likes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The book centers around an attempt at whistleblowing after a questionable operation to grab a high-level jihadist is conducted jointly by British special forces and an American-owned private security firm (which is basically Blackwater if it were owned by a far right Evangelical Christian). It wasn’t bad, but the characters’ motivations and lack of professionalism (and much higher level of profanity than usual) didn’t really grab me. Additionally, the people from the Blackwater-like mercenary group sometimes seemed more like caricatures than believable characters. Overall: not a complete bomb, but not his best work.