The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry

The Washington Post has reported recently that a former CIA case officer, suspected of being the mole responsible for the unmasking and deaths of many undercover agents in China, has been arrested.  The investigation to find the mole has been going on for a number of years now, crippling our ability to get accurate information about China. A clear reminder that spying is not glamorous but in reality a very a deadly business.

In The Shanghai Factor a nameless spy relates his experiences in China working for a nebulous U. S. agency named HQ.  At first he is supposed to immerse himself in the language and culture, but when he meets a woman named Mei and they begin a torrid affair, he suddenly risks exposing himself and HQ.  Trying to put a positive spin on this unexpected notoriety, Luther Burbank, the head of HQ, asks the young spy to go undercover at a large Chinese multi national company and try to uncover whether or not its CEO, Chen Qi, is indeed the head of  the shadowy and impenetrable Chinese Intelligence Service known as Goanbu.

The spy soon realizes however, that in addition to HQ there are others who are monitoring his movements and the cat and mouse game that he is playing becomes even more complicated and dangerous. While, Mei flits in and out of his life, upsetting his dreams of  making their relationship permanent, the spy is drawn further and further into the shadowy and deadly power struggle between HQ and Goanbu, which could upset the balance of power between East and West.

McCarry, like LeCarré, was once a spy himself and his descriptions of what a spy thinks, and feels and their struggles to maintain their cover in the face of intense scrutiny and difficulty feels authentic and true. This book was fascinating and McCarry’s insights into China and the way the Chinese perceive the world and threats to their power were enlightening.  The nameless spy was an interesting affectation that was both helpful and a bit unsettling, since it limited your ability to relate to the character fully. However, it also made you aware of the nameless people who serve as our country’s eyes and ears all over the world and who are often betrayed or die in that service who are never known or acknowledged.

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian, Keith and Sharon

Book Study Worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format

 

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

Just this week Oprah made a speech at the Golden Globes Award Ceremony that grabbed headlines all over the world. In it she envisioned a different kind of world for women and   said:

So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.

In The Power, Alderman also posits a world in which women would no longer have to say #MeToo, but her vision is much darker, less hopeful and a much more complicated and nuanced world than Oprah seemed to have in mind.

The Power is set in the distant future and begins with some business correspondence between an aspiring male author named Neil, to his female mentor and editor. Neil has written a novel describing the sudden shift in power between women and men at some point in the distant past and describes how women came to dominate society and men became unequal. At first the female editor is skeptical. What is the basis for his theory? Isn’t this just the way things are? Why does he think there was a sudden shift, and why would he ever think that there was a time when the male sex was the dominate gender in society. With these questions as a backdrop the story shifts to the novel itself.

The Power developed accidentally or maybe it was something in the water. No one is sure, but soon young women were able to manipulate a powerful electrical field, that could shock, hurt, and even kill those it was directed against. The source of the power is centerred at the collar bone in what is called the skein, and once activated it can be used at will. At first it was only young girls who had this power, but then they found away to awaken this latent power in older women as well, and that is when the shift in gender power began.

The novel follows several young women and one man, a Nigerian journalist who follows the emerging story all over the world as the change happens. At first women are stunned with their power, and enter places like convents and other safe places as they try to understand what it means.  One young women, who killed her foster father as he raped her, flees to a small convent in the rural Northeast. There she slowly begins to understand the potential of this power and as more and more young women with the power join the convent she becomes their leader and takes the name of Eve. Margot, a woman whose daughter has the power, sees it as a way to cement her political future. Roxy, a young women from a London crime family, blessed with extraordinary power revels in the way it has changed her fortunes dramatically.

Alderman writes with such authority, that it is easy to slip into this new world and feel completely disoriented in the real world when you stop reading.  The struggles of these women as they see the potential for more authority and power is exciting and hopeful. But there are signs too that absolute power is dangerous and can corrupt. Mythology shifts, and men are known as the weaker gender, the nurturers and caretakers, while women are powerful, and move the levers of the world. Alderman brings her characters to life, and they carry the story, adding depth and perspective. This is a fascinating and enlightening  read in a time when “a new day is on the horizon!”

Brenda’s Rating *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian, Lauren, Keith and Ken

Book Study Worthy? YES!

Read in ebook format

 

 

 

 

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Best Books From 2017- A Year End Wrap Up

I know! It is 2018, and here I am still talking abut 2017. But I wanted to highlight some of the best books I read last year to tempt you into reading some great books during this next year. So here goes!

The best book I read last year was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Tender, insightful and exquisitely written, this book takes you to Moscow and immerses you into the lives of the people at the Metropol Hotel over the course of several decades. This extraordinary novel is one of those books that reaffirms one’s faith in humanity while making the reading life very satisfying.

When Breath Becomes Air is the true story of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who on the verge of completing his residency is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. The book is his effort to find the answer to two important questions. “What is a good and virtuous life?” and “What is a good death?” Powerfully written, Kalanithi, examines a life stripped bare of anything nonessential to living or dying. Strangely, rather than being sad or depressing, the focus on these essentials is uplifting and comforting. Profound and humorous, honest and insightful, Kalanithi’s story lingers long after you have finished reading it.

 This year like many of you I watched Ken Burn’s series on the Vietnam War. While watching it I kept being reminded of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is a complicated book narrated by a Vietnamese communist sleeper agent full of dark, evocative satire and perceptive insights about the effect of the war on Vietnam and the US. In an interview Nguyen said he wanted to write a novel that  “directly confronts the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view… I wanted to be very critical of the Americans in Vietnam and not adopt the usual position of Vietnamese Americans, which is either to be grateful to be rescued by Americans or conciliatory, and not directly confrontational…” He has more than succeeded in doing that and in doing so he has also humanized all the factions and actors, clearing away the simplistic one sided motives of the US’s participation and replacing it with something more complicated, yet more true.

In the same vein, I found The Girl in Green by Derek Miller to be tremendously enlightening regarding the war in Afghanistan, while The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh helped me see the history of colonialism in India, Myanmar and Malaysia from a new perspective. These books are both well worth reading!

On a lighter note, I thoroughly enjoyed the Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz who took Agatha Christie’s tried and true detective formula and created a modern interpretation. Well written, suspenseful and fun to read, this is a whodunit that will keep you guessing to the last page!

Finally, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is the feel good, restore your faith in humanity, there is a silver lining behind every rainstorm, book that you have been waiting for! I thoroughly enjoyed Honeyman’s ability to make me empathize with someone as complicated and off-putting as Eleanor to such an extent that by the end of the book I was cheering her on!

I hope these book suggestions get you off to good start in this new year of reading!

 

 

 

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Happy New Year! (Almost!)

Hopefully, you are taking a little bit of well deserved break and looking forward to New Year’s Eve plans with family and friends.

I am!

I want to thank each one of you for following my blog and responding when ever something piques your interest. It is a joy for me to share my love of reading and the books that have impacted me throughout this year.  I will be back next week to give a year end summary for 2017!

Gratefully,

Brenda

 

 

 

 

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The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle With Illustrations by Giotto

It is almost Christmas again. if you are like me you are probably frantic with all the last minute details as you wait for your family to gather.  So in the midst of all that let me offer something that will help you slow down and remind you again of what we are really celebrating in these final crazy days of the season,

Years ago I found a lovely book called The Glorious Impossible with text written by Madeleine L’Engle and illustrated with the frescoes by Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. This is truly an amazing chapel and the frescoes which you can see in their entirety by clicking here are masterpieces of detail and artistic brilliance. Giotto is thought to have started and finished these frescoes during a two year time period between 1303 and 1305. Given the detail and volume of this work, it is really quite extraordinary.

Against the backdop of these frescoes, L’Engle’s reflections bring us to the central meaning of the birth, life, and death of Jesus. She points out that Jesus’ life was framed by two impossibilities: the story of his birth and later his death and resurrection which leads her to the central thesis of this book:

Possible things are easy to believe.

The Glorious Impossibles

are what bring joy to our hearts,

hope to our lives,

songs to our lips.

L”Engel’s retelling of the mystery of “God, come to be one of us” is new and yet familiar. In her inimitable style she weaves the strands of the story, always pointing out the “Glorious Impossibilities” that give us joy and hope. There is probably no greater gift than to be reminded again of the Glorious Impossibility that this season offers to all of us!

 

 

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The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

I discovered Louise Penny and her wonderful Inspector Gamache earlier this year and was enchanted by her insightful and soulful writing. In reading The Beautiful Mystery I was enchanted all over again. This is certainly a series to read and savor.

Inspector Gamache and his colleague Jean-Guy Beauvoir are suddenly called away to  the wilds of Quebec to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups to investigate the murder of the monks’ choir director.  Although the monastery is cloistered and the monks take a vow of silence, they sing each time they gather together in the chapel for the Divine Office. It was this singing, also known as the beautiful mystery in monastic circles, that had made them famous after years of seclusion and anonymity, for just a few years earlier they had released a recording of their singing and it had become an overnight sensation.

Now the monks face into the fact that one of their own was murdered and allow into their seclusion, two police officers who must find the killer among them.  Although it should be a relatively simple case, Gamache soon realizes that underneath the surface placidity of the monastery is a well of  unresolved conflict between two factions, one that supported the choir director and wanted to continue to make and release recordings so that they could support themselves and another that supported the prior who was concerned that the selling their music was costing their souls. As the investigation continues, Gamache must also fend off two unexpected visitors, who not only complicate the investigation, but try to distract him from finding the truth.

Penny is a consummate writer whose deft plotting and skillful character development are so seamless you are able to just sit back and enjoy the unfolding narrative which is probably why she awarded the 2012 Agatha Award among others for this book. The tension and suspense rises with each revelation but unlike many detective series, Penny invites the reader into solving the crime by revealing Gamache’s own analysis as the investigation unfolds. What is however the most notable about these books is Penny’s ability to portray the soulful intellect that is so core Gamache’s character in spite of the violent nature of his profession or maybe because of it.

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian, Sharon and Keith

Book study worthy? Sure!

Read in ebook format

 

 

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In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen

I admit that I have been going through a low grade Downton Abbey withdrawal. I have tried to fill this void with other period dramas but somehow they just don’t get at that little knot of longing for haughty Mary and her grandmother, Lady Violet or for the lovely understated romance between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. But then I came across this book by Rhys Bowen and suddenly I was back in that world and it was good!

World War II is forcing sacrifices of everyone, including Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of  the Earl of Westerham. Lord Roderick and Lady Esme and their daughters have been doing their part by having military personnel live on their estate while working at a nearby airfield. Only the youngest of their five daughters, Lady Diana (nineteen) and Lady Phoebe (twelve) are at home now and both are finding this major change in their life quite exhilarating.

However, when a man parachutes to his death on the estate, and his uniform and possessions aren’t quite what they should be, suspicions that he might be a German spy ensue. Ben Cresswell, an MI5 operative and a friend of the family is asked to go and assess the situation and if the man was a German spy, to find out who his contact was in Farleigh Place. Unbeknownst to Ben, Lady Pamela, the middle daughter of the Earl of Westerham who is secretly working at Bletchley Park, is trying to track down the source of some strange signals that the code breakers have found that seem to be connected to Farleigh Place. Since it is her home, she is also dispatched to investigate Farleigh Place.  As the mystery deepens and new clues  as well as many inconsistencies are exposed, Ben and Pamela must join forces to expose the traitor in their midst.

This was a lovely book to read. Good character delineation, good development of suspense and tension, and wonderful descriptions of life on the estate and in the nearby small town with all the requisite supporting characters that you expect from books set in this time and place. There is something so comforting and bracing about the British penchant for the “stiff upper lip” and their “carry on” attitude.  Maybe it is because of all the chaos that we are experiencing now, that this characteristic of the British, in the face of the chaos and fear they experienced in WWII, is so appealing to me. Surely if they faced down fascism with courage and strength, we too can face the forces of misogyny, racism and inequality with similar courage and strength. Let it be so!

Brenda’s Rating: ***1/2 (3 1/2 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian and Keith

Books Study Worthy: Sure as long as it includes hot tea and scones!

Read in ebook format.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Spy/Covert Operatives, Suspense, Thriller | Tagged , , | 1 Comment