My goodness, I am so far behind in sharing my recent completed reads. I imagine a few of these will be crappier than normal since I’ve put them off so long.
A Spy In The Struggle – Aya de León
I’ve been working through a list of good, recent espionage novels that this and the next book both were on. The list featured books that take a non-traditional view of espionage.
In Aya de León’s work, her focus is Yolanda Vance, a young, African-American woman who saw her law career derailed when the Manhattan firm she was working at was raided by the FBI. After turning over evidence to the FBI she was blackballed by the New York law community. With no other options, Vance joins the FBI. Despite some promising early work in New Jersey, she is pulled from her unit and sent to the Bay Area, and asked to infiltrate a group that caters to inner city youth the FBI believes is responsible for harassing an important defense contractor.
Yolanda just happened to play college basketball at a small school in the area, and the FBI views her as the perfect person to get inside the group to see what’s going on.
From there the developments are a little predictable. Vance initially sees the organization as a problem, filled with complainers who are unwilling to work as hard as she did to change their paths in life. In time, though, she comes to learn that the local FBI office is corrupt and is working to hide a murder that took place in the contractor’s facilities. She falls in love with a professor on campus, which helps open her eyes more to the reality of the situation. Soon she is bringing down the corrupt agents and showing that the contractor is the true bad guy in the relationship with the community.
It’s all a little too easy and feel-goody, even to my liberal heart. But de León’s characters are fun and interesting.
Northern Spy – Flynn Berry
Here, again we see that spies don’t have to fit into the mold of James Bond.
Tessa works as a producer for BBC radio in Northern Ireland. She’s a single mom who just barely manages to get through each day of work and motherhood and, thus, largely stays out of politics other than covering them for work. Until she looks up one day and sees her sister, Marian, on the news taking responsibility for a robbery carried out for the Irish Republican Army.
Shocked, Tessa fights to make contact with Marian to figure out if she was kidnapped, drugged, or otherwise forced to join the IRA. Once they meet, she learns that Marian is, indeed, an IRA member, and willingly so. But there’s a catch: she is also informing for MI5, the British security agency in hopes of bringing about an end to the latest round of violence in Belfast.
Tessa gets roped in to her sister’s world. To both sides of it, in fact. Soon she is passing information from Marian onto MI5 while also helping Marian’s IRA compatriots by writing down license plates parked at the police center, or transporting materials from one location to another.
Eventually the sisters’ treachery is discovered by the IRA. At the same moment they are abandoned by their MI5 handler. Only through some quick thinking and help from kindly strangers do they survive.
Berry’s story highlights how strange the Northern Ireland conflict is/was. And how “regular” folks got swept up into it so easily.
Caught Stealing – Charlie Huston
I was digging through some old emails recently and found one that was at least 15 years old from a friend I’m not in contact with anymore. In it, he shared a bunch of authors he enjoyed. I’ve worked through a lot of them over the years, but Charlie Huston’s name was new to me. So I grabbed this.
It is one of the most ridiculously violent books I’ve ever read.
Hank Thompson is a former high school baseball star who saw his entire life get upended when he destroys his leg late during his senior year.
Years later he’s a bartender and part-time drunk in New York. A neighbor asks him to watch his cat while he’s away for a few days. Thus ensues chaos.
Turns out inside that cat’s carrier was a very important key, a key that a lot of people are looking for. Soon Thompson is getting battered and beaten by a variety of characters looking for the key including Eastern European hitmen and cops, both crooked and straight. I’m not sure what’s more amazing: how much physical abuse Thompson takes or how he just keeps bouncing back from it.
If you can deal with the violence, this is a surprisingly funny and fun read.
Desert Notebooks – Ben Ehrenreich
I read a number of glowing articles about this book around its release. It seemed like a good change-of-pace from the spy stuff.
Ehrenreich, who writes about climate change for The Nation magazine, details the year or so he spent living in the desert of Nevada, first in Joshua Tree National Park and later in Las Vegas while serving as a visiting professor at UNLV. Along the way he documents the craziness going on in the world both politically – this was 2017–18 – and the daily reports on how our climate is creeping closer to total breakdown. And he explores the concept of time, as told through the writings of all kinds of ancient civilizations.
It’s an odd book. The historical stuff didn’t really connect with me, other than when he’s pointing out how whole swaths of known, ancient history were cut from what is taught as the roots of Western Civilization because it came from the wrong parts of the world, or didn’t fit within the story the advocates for western capitalism wanted to push.
His documentation of both our country’s political spiral and our planet’s environmental spiral is depressing. But I’m always fascinated by these “notebook”-styled books, in which you can see authors fleshing out ideas that turned into other works.
Slow Horses – Mick Herron
Finally, the first book in a series about a group of disgraced MI5 agents. These agents all fucked up somehow and are sent to Slough House, a decrepit building somewhere in London, where they are given mindless, meaningless work designed to force them to resign from the intelligence service on their own. Early on, Herron goes into detail how each member of the Slow Horses, as the folks back at MI5 proper call them, failed to earn this dubious assignment. It almost felt like a comic book origin story: a group of misfits with particular skills who are forced to work together and, though a series of accidents, become some kind of unique force.
The story doesn’t quite take that track. Turns out Slough House is being framed from within MI5 for an operation that has gone wrong. Only the Slow Horses have figured it out and know just enough to fight back.
It’s a cool little story, although very, very British. Herron uses some idioms that I had no idea what they meant, even from carefully re-reading around them to find context. There is a whole set of books that feature the Slow Horses so that may be the next series I dive into.