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review 2018-06-19 16:44
The Constant Gardener / John Le Carré
The Constant Gardener - John le Carré

Tessa Quayle-young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin-is gruesomely murdered in northern Kenya. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect but also a target for Tessa's killers.

A master chronicler of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict, John le Carré portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism as only he can. In The Constant Gardener he tells a compelling, complex story of a man elevated through tragedy as Justin Quayle-amateur gardener, aging widower, and ineffectual bureaucrat-discovers his own natural resources and the extraordinary courage of the woman he barely had time to love.


***2018 Summer of Spies***

So its summer, finally and at last, here in the Great White North. It’s time for some summer fun reading about espionage! This is my first venture into Le Carré’s work and I enjoyed it.

I had expected a rather light & frothy thriller and instead I got a serious examination of big pharma—its use of the unfortunate as test subjects and its desire to put profit well ahead of human kindness. Also explored is the nature of colonialism in Kenya, reminding me a bit of The Poisonwood Bible. Heavy subjects for a popular novel!

I also got a reminder on the nature of marriage—those of us on the outside of a marriage really have no idea what’s happening on the inside. On the outside, Sandy and Gloria Woodrow look like the stable, steady couple and Justin and Tessa Quayle look like a precarious, unmatched union. The book begins from Sandy Woodrow’s point of view and quickly disabuses the reader of the notion that his marriage is solid. Woodrow’s constant search for sex outside his marriage was tiresome and it was a relief when I reached the point where Le Carré switched to Justin’s POV. There we discover that, far from being unstable, Justin and Tessa trusted and loved each other a great deal.

Thereafter followed the labyrinthine machinations that I had been expecting. Who knows what, who is hiding something, what can be done about it all? I can definitely see why The Guardian lists it as one of their 1000 recommended books.

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review 2018-06-18 12:36
Amberlough - Lara Elena Donnelly

On the face of it, I should love this novel: spies, cabaret, a setting that is an alternative take on the Weimar Republic... What's not to love, right?


However, the book just isn't working for me. I've tried to read this several times, but just get lost in the endless names and descriptions that seem to lead nowhere.


This morning, I spent a good hour and a half trying one last time if there was a way to get into the story, but all I am left with is a hankering for some original1920s/30s literature with its roots firmly placed in the Weimar Republic.


I'm not rating the book. I have a clear suspicion that it is not the book's fault that I prefer something closer to a feeling of authenticity than a pastiche any day.

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review 2018-06-17 17:17
Our Kind of Traitor
Our Kind of Traitor - John le Carré

Our kind of Traitor starts with a young couple on holiday in Antigua, who are introduced by the resident tennis pro to a man called Dima.

Little do they know that a random (or is it?) acquaintance at a tennis court will change their lives.

The next thing we know is that the couple is being interviewed by the Secret Service about every detail of their meeting with Dima. 


Without taking away much of the plot - which is rather thin as it is - there were elements of this book that reminded me of The Russia House, which in my estimation is still the best le Carre book I have read. And this is probably the most flattering thing I can say about Our Kind of Traitor.


However, those elements were far and few between. 


I liked the writing and the jumping from one perspective to another, but the story dragged. Badly. There is little gripping action in this - tho, if you're looking for action, don't pick up le Carre in the first place - and the suspense is mostly built on the question of whether the "transaction" will be made or not. This is not a lot to go on over 300 pages.


The description of how the characters change over the course of the events helps with the lack of plot, and le Carre's characters themselves are infinitely more rounded and enjoyable than those of many other spy thrillers, but, overall, this was not as satisfying a read as The Constant Gardner, The Russia House, The Tailor of Panama, or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (I'm not a huge fan of the Smiley series...)

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review 2018-06-16 03:55
Slow And Steady (Horses) Win The Race
Slow Horses - Mick Herron

I really had no idea what to expect of this book when I picked it up. I ended up really, really, as in thoroughly and completely, enjoying it. Set in London, it revolves around Slough House, the place where spies go to languish after they've made a mess of something.


To rely upon this book, as well as Our Man in Havana, is to conclude that incompetence in British government is rewarded with exile, diminished responsibilities, and the same salary. True? Possibly.


In Slow Horses, however, things are not entirely as they seem. A book that is positively prescient on the rise of angry white nationalism - published in 2010,  Mick Herron saw clearly the rising of the forces that would ultimately lead to Brexit - relies upon conspiracy within conspiracy that must be unraveled by the Slow Horses if they are to avoid being, yet again, blamed for events that are beyond their control.


Great first installment in an engaging series. 

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review 2018-06-16 00:38
"Who Is Vera Kelly?" by Rosalie Knecht
Who is Vera Kelly? - Rosalie Knecht

I slid straight into "Who Is Vera Kelly?", carried along not by the pace of the plot, which is not the usual you-have-twenty-four-hours- to-save-the-world spy thriller pace but by the nuanced but unpretentious prose and by the clear, calm way in which Vera describes herself and her situation.


We meet two Veras in the book - the 1957 not-quite-eighteen Vera, in emotional distress and heading towards juvie and 1966 twenty-six going on twenty-seven Vera who works for the CIA undercover in Argentina collecting covert surveillance material on politicians and dissidents.


I liked the fact that neither Vera discusses the other. Both are fully occupied by their present. There is no clumsy forboding or regretful reminiscence, just life as it happens.

What links the two Veras is a deep awareness of their isolation and their inability to live an authentic life without running the risk of being punished for their sexual orientation.


I enjoyed anticipating the slow reveal that would let me see how the 1957 Vera, in love with her best friend, in conflict with her mother and locked away by the authorities became 1966 Vera, working for a CIA that has a policy of not knowingly employing gay people because of the risk of blackmail.


Vera's narrative about her teenage life has the stunned quiet of shock and dislocation about it that comes from being a teenager dealing with emotions that are larger than you are, when you have no experience to guide you and no power to protect yourself.


One of my favourite passages in the book is seventeen-year-old Vera's description of how she feels about Joanne, the girl she loves, in which she recognises her own inability to look at herself and her emotions directly or set them in context but in which she is able to express their power:

"When I thought of Joanne I could do never do better than a kind of wounded evasion of my romantic feelings for her.


I pretended that I was like one of the great ladies of the nineteenth century who sent each other genteel letters when they were apart about how desperately they missed each other. When we read those letters in history classes, or came across that kind of talk in books, our teachers would explain that what read like passion was just the natural affinity of women for each other andthere was nothing out of the way about it at all.


Joanne had been my favourite person in the world and when she hugged me and her face pressed against my neck I felt a fizzing, nauseous thrill from the pit of my stomach to the bones of my feet. That was all I knew about it and all I could have told anyone if anyone had asked."

Vera's narrative about her time undercover in Buenos Aires is tense in a way that speaks to fear long lived with rather than an adrenalin rush. She habitually and skillfully hides who she is. She is alone, reaching for detachment and finding first panic and then determination and courage. The tension is handled in a low-key way that builds pressure at an inexorable pace that feels like a slow-motion car-crash in which Vera is in the passenger seat.


One of the things I found most engaging about Vera is how clearly she expresses what she sees. Her interior dialogue is nuanced and rich. Here's an example of her reaction to something as she walks through the pre-dawn streets of Buenos Aires as a coupe d'êtat takes place:

"I passed a nightclub with the doors propped open, young people streaming out into the street. I was startled by the intrusion of raucous nightime into this quiet dawn moment."

As things got worse in Buenos Aires I kept asking myself why Vera had chosen to put herself at risk by going under-cover in a foreign land. I could see no driving idealism or fervent patriotism or even thrill-seeking to explain the choice. As the story unfolded and I started to get an answer to the question, "Who Is Vera Kelly?" I began to understand that Vera's situation in Buenos Aires is only an amplification of her life in the US. Vera has been living under-cover her whole life. It seemed to me that her situation also gave Vera a legitimate reason for watching and manipulating people while remaining distant and hiding who she is.


This feeling was reinforced when Vera finally talks about her relationship with her first-love, Joanne. She Says:

"Joanne was the last person who could look at me and  see me looking back. Who could put out her hand and find me there. I wouldn't let it be so easy again."

"Who Is Vera Kelly?" is an accessible, easy-to-read book but that doesn't mean it's a simple one. Part of my pleasure in reading the book came from the way in which the novel uses the spy genre to demonstrate what it's like to live in an environment so hostile to your sexual orientation that you dare not admit to being who you are and the consequential stress, isolation and blurring of identity.


I listened to the audiobook edition, which is narrated with great skill by Elisabeth Rodgers, You can hear a sample of her narration of "Who Is Vera Kelly?" by clicking on the SoundCloud link below.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/458792880" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]


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