A Spy By Nature – Charles Cumming.
I read Cumming’s Trinity Six earlier this year. After a slow start, I really liked it. I keep hearing Cumming’s name listed as one of the best young espionage writers going, so dove back in for another.
Here, he focuses on a young British man, Alec Milius, who is drifting through his early 20s in the early 90s without any direction while his friends from school find success and fortune. Eager to move his own life forward, he accepts an invitation to apply to MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, only to fail to earn appointment after a rigorous interview process. However, a family friend who steered him to MI6 quickly steers him to an oil company, and the opportunity to both build a career and do some light corporate espionage.
Milius ends up working as a double-agent, providing false information to American spies who believe he is working for them. His greed, arrogance, and inexperience cause things to go poorly, and he’s denied a chance to join MI5, the domestic intelligence service.
It’s a pretty good book. There is tension and intrigue aplenty. And while Milius isn’t someone you necessarily empathize with, or even like, his journey is interesting.
Dead Space – Lee Goldberg.
Occasionally I try one of the books that Amazon Prime members can borrow for free on the Kindle. Results have been very mixed. I could read Moneyball again, for example. And there are about a million trashy romantic books if I ever wanted to get into those.
This came with good reviews not only from readers, but from mainstream reviewers, too. I didn’t get it. It was silly, but not in a good way. It was violent, but not in a fun way. If it had been any longer, I would have given up on it. At least it was free.
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Man, I avoided this book for quite a while. Sure, I saw it on so many Best Of lists last year, and watched it finish second in the Tournament of Books.1 But two things kept it off my To Read list:
1 – People kept saying it was a Young Adult novel. Not that I’m philosophically opposed to reading a YA novel. But with so many other books to read, that made it a little less appealing.
2 – Every blurb or review or comment I read about the book mentioned that it was about kids with cancer and it was impossible not to cry while reading it. Not every book I read has to be happy and up-lifting. But reading about sick kids when I have kids of my own wasn’t a big draw.
But, as I’ve said before, one of the great things about walking through a library is sometimes books jump out at you. And there this book was a couple weeks ago, when I was glancing at the librarian’s recommendations shelf, something I rarely do. It was a sign from the Reading Gods, I guess. So I put all my reservations aside, picked it up, and checked it out.
Jesus, this freaking book…
It’s utterly charming and delightful and wonderful. And totally heartbreaking and devastating and draining. I had to stay up and finish it well after midnight so the girls wouldn’t see how dusty the room was while I was reading the second half.
Bonus points for being set in Indianapolis and written by an author who lives here.
Live By Night – Dennis Lehane.
I guess Lehane is up there amongst the authors I’ve read most. I can’t keep track of how many of his Kenzie-Gennaro books I’ve read, and I’ve read a couple of his period pieces.
This falls into the later category, taking place during and immediately after Prohibition. Joe Coughlin is the son of a Boston cop, but firmly entrenched in the Boston underworld. He crosses the wrong people, ends up in prison, and there quickly comes under the protection of the boss that runs much of Boston from behind bars. After his hard two years, Coughlin is sent to Tampa to take over the town and stabilize the pipeline of rum from Cuba. Soon he is the local boss and life is good. Until it’s not.
There’s violence, double-crossings, bad guys who are good guys and good guys who are as crooked as the people they chase. And since Lehane is writing it, it’s all good.
Red Sparrow – Jason Matthews.
Finally, this, which came from a Twitter thread recommending the best recent spy novels. This was the overwhelming choice as best of the lot, and for good reason. Rather than moving away from political/military espionage and more towards industrial espionage as Charles Cumming did in A Spy By Nature, Matthews jumps into the new cold war between the US and Russia. And he does it really, really well. Which makes sense since he’s a retired CIA officer who spent time in Moscow during the first Cold War.
I’ve never read LeCarre’s classics, but I understand this is very much in that vein. It’s a great spy book, with lots of nuance and slow builds rather than Bond-like moments of cinematic chases and fights. Although there are a couple of those. And rather than being just a spy novel, there’s other stuff going on, too. A nascent romance between a CIA officer and the Russian spy charged with recruiting him. There are some terrific secondary characters. And the main character, the red sparrow, has an unforgettable backstory that sets up her path towards being a spy.
It’s a page-turner, it’s deep and smart, it’s well written, and given Matthews background, it has a level of authenticity other spy novels lack.
- To The Orphan Master’s Son, another of my favorite recent books, it’s worth noting. ↩