Spies Writing Spy Novels

I picked up Jeanne Kinkade’s novel “The Zero Line” based on two factors that intrigued me: one, at least part of the novel was set in Ellicott City, Maryland,GetSmart and environs which is familiar to me and two, in her biography she is a self-confessed former intelligence agent who worked at the National Security Agency (NSA).  She goes on to boast that she has worked closely with other three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, etc.) and written think pieces on troublesome intelligence questions, such as the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden (before his capture.) So, when I read the plot synopsis featuring an exciting turn of events in Pakistan, I was on-board for a spy thrill ride.  Sadly, her plot and characters did not live up to (my) expectations.  The story opens with a married couple, Polly and Mitch McKenna, uncovering a mysterious hidden compartment in an old clock purchased in Ellicott City.  A series of events leads them to believe the clock’s former owner was involved in double-agent activities during the Cold War.  A second spy-themed plot line involves a Pakistani extremist planning to kidnap and kill a Marine and release sarin in a crowded city.  All potentially very exciting but the story does not deliver.  The author gives us some hints about our main characters–Polly and Mitch–but fails to fully develop them so that they come off as two-dimensional and I, as a reader, found that I did not care a whole lot about what happened to them.  Polly is supposedly a former intelligence field officer, but her husband doesn’t know it.  I found it a bit hard to believe because she comes across as a nitwit sometimes;– for example, a major storm is raging across her town and she waits until the transformer blows before locating a flashlight.  The author also never follows up on this thread of her former employment.  Mitch has his troubles as well.  He is suffering crippling guilt over an unexplained incident which resulted in the deaths of fellow marines.  This guilt is sabotaging his marriage, but neither the original incident nor how the couple overcomes it is sufficiently explored.  Also, at the end of the book two former Marine friends facing life-threatening circumstances lapse into an unrealistic joking banter a la buddy action movies such as Die Hard.  I can believe making a few wise cracks under pressure, but this felt out of step with the seriousness of the rest of the story.  My other disappointment was that I was expecting much more insider intelligence descriptions and know-how…I wanted a lot more technical wiz-bang from a former NSAer.  There was no real spycraft to speak of in the story.  That being said, the author did a good job describing Pakistan–particularly the congested city of Peshawar and the desolate high mountain regions and FATA.  The locale added a great deal to the story and I believe one of the strongest scenes in the book was one involving a reluctant extremist setting off a chemical weapon within a crowded cyber cafe, describing his conflicted emotions and regret.  It looks like Kinkade has a sequel planned, and that may close some gaps.  The first book was attractively produced with a nice cover, but had some editing problems including strange characters in the e-book version.

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Dying for One’s Convictions

FrankieSAuthor Sharyn McCrumb’s novel “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” is a masterful fictionalized account of the murder investigation and trial of the first woman hung by the state of North Carolina in 1833. More than just a fictionalized history, it is also a psychological thriller and social commentary on what forces were at work at the time that would prompt a seventeen-year-old mountain girl to murder her husband with an axe and then attempt to dispose of the body by chopping it up and burning it.  McCrumb intersperses the tale of Frankie Silver with a modern day imagined account of a local sheriff who is haunted by the impending execution of an accused murder who the sheriff arrested and provided evidence for his conviction over twenty years ago.  The sheriff, called on the be a state’s witness to the execution, is finding striking similarities between the more than one hundred year old case of Mrs Silver and the man who was now on death row.  McCrumb’s portrayal of the social and status divisions between the mountain folk and townspeople in both centuries is a stark, revealing and  charges that justice is served only to those who have social standing and resources.  Her research into the case of Frankie Silver was prodigious , no doubt, based on the bibliography and detailed scenes of the legal twists and turns of the case.  This portion of the story, however, could have been cut back somewhat for the sake of good story telling, but I suspect the author felt compelled to faithfully include everything she had learned about the case.  McCrumb’s strength as a writer comes through in her description of the mountain settings, her ability to draw the inner thoughts of characters to the point that a reader may sympathize with a criminal, and in her talent for spinning an old-fashioned good tale.

McCrumb is also the author of “She Walks These Hills,” “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” “The Songcatcher,” and other stories set in Appalachia.

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Never Met a Bryson Book I Didn’t Like

BrysonbookBill Bryson has an amazing talent for taking the mundane facts of history and weaving them into a funny, thrilling, fascinating and readable work on non-fiction.  His topics have ranged from travel adventures such as his exploration of the Appalachian Trail and the Australian outback,  or the examination of social history from his own childhood memories to the history of his house.  Bryson’s recent work, One Summer America 1927 takes the reader on a chronological trip through the summer of 1927 in America, carried along by a host of events and characters from the era including sports legends, political figures, “heroes” and criminals.  The structure of the work starts with the contest to over-fly the Atlantic ocean from New York to Paris in early May and ends with a fall from grace for America’s hero, Lindbergh, in late September.  Interwoven in this adventure are all the other stars who appeared on the public stage during the summer of this particular year: Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge, Sacco and Venzetti, and many others.  These people defined an era and helped form and characterize a nation before the Great Depression.  What I found particularly compelling were the similarities between the mindset of the late 1920’s and today.  Although this book would not be listed as one of Bryson’s best in my opinion, it was an interesting and very worthwhile read.  I was appalled and disappointed to learn, however, that most of these larger-than-life sports and other historical figures were truly reprehensible people in many regards.  Why, you ask?  You’ll have to read the book.

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Define “Normal”

"Kelcie" by Frank Kovalchek  Flikr IMG_1330a

“Kelcie” by Frank Kovalchek
Flikr IMG_1330a

Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters is a story about looks being deceiving.  It centers around a young middle schooler, Antonia, who is selected by the guidance office to provide peer counseling to troubled fellow student, Jasmine “Jazz” Luther.  Antonia is immediately put off by the girls looks — piercings, black lipstick, tattoos — and assumes she’s unintelligent, sub-human, and trouble.  As the story unfolds, we learn that it is Antonia — a model straight A student, who is struggling with a home life that’s falling apart: her dad has deserted the family and her mother is increasingly dysfunctional.  Antonia, left to pick up the slack for her two young brothers, tries to hide the facts from neighbors and school officials and refuses to ask for help.  Despite their differences, the girls begin to trust one another.  Antonia discovers that Jazz lives in a mansion and is a gifted classical pianist.  Jazz, on the other hand, takes part in supporting Antonia when she and her brothers are sent to live in a foster home.  The author, Peters, weaves a masterful portrayal of Antonia’s mother’s descent into crippling depression.  Although the book is a bit dated, it is a fast and enjoyable read.  Peters, who has made her mark in the young adult fiction scene with stories about struggles faced by gay/lesbian teens, made the characters in this story, however, a bit too stereotypical.  The “good girl” Antonia is too naive and often talks like a middle-aged woman, whereas the “bad girl” Jazz trots out all the clichéd bagged of a teen rebelling against her parents.  I also question the age of the girls, who are supposed to be 8th grade middle schoolers.  The fact that Jazz sports tattoos and such without parental permission is questionable, and some of their activities seem more appropriate to high school.  Overall, a good story that kept this reader engaged.

 

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What Did We See at Night?

This YA series by NYT best selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard is a huge disappointment.  The first book, What We Saw at Night, held great promise as the story of three teens with a rare disease which restricts them from ever going outside during the day–Xeroderma Pigmentosum or XP.  The main character, Allie Kim, is greatly influenced by her life-long free-spirited friend, Juliet, who introduces them to the dangerous but exhilarating “sport” of Parkour– scaling and leaping off of tall buildings.  Rob–Allie’s friend and blossoming love interest–joins the girls and soon has them going out on summer nights, breaking into construction sites and parks, to do Parkour, which is the only thing that makes them feel truly alive and lifted from their early death sentence.  It is during one of their building scaling escapades that Allie witnesses what she is sure is a murder scene. Mitchard’s portrayal of the murderer, a man with a strange streak of white down his hairline, is chilling.  Allie, who dubs him “Blondie,” his horrified to realize that her friend Juliet may have some deadly connection with him and is mysteriously subject to his influence. The plot hooks the reader, but then lets you down as Allie shuttlecocks through the story without being effective in any direction she takes.  For example, she spots Blondie with a bundle, possibly the body, who seems to disappear in an area she later learns contains a trap door to a stairwell.  This stairwell leads to the ruins of an old boathouse, yet in the rest of the novel she alerts no one, not even Juliet’s police chief father, to go check it out.  Worst of all, the book just ends without any resolution and is taken up in the next of the series, What We Lost in the Dark.   Although the voice of Allie is compelling, I felt cheated by the non-ending.Whatwesaw

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Define “Normal”? Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

fakingnormalcoverCourtney C. Stevens’ debut novel “Faking Normal” takes on some tough issues.  It opens at the funeral for a neighbor who has been killed by her own husband.  The dead woman’s  teenaged son, Bodee, is a bit of an oddball and outcast already– a boy who dyes his hair with KoolAid and keeps to himself.  After the tragedy, he is taken in by Alexi’s family to live with them for a while, and is the only one who notices that Lexi has a dark secret of her own.  She’s been “faking normal” and has convinced her two close friends, Liz and Heather, her parents, and everyone else around her that she’s living the life of a normal high school teen.  But Lexi is not doing such a good job in suppressing her internal demons, and has turned to hiding in her closet at night and tearing at the back of her neck until it bleeds.  Stevens keeps the reader guessing as to the specifics of Lexi’s incident, but it is clear that it involves some form of sexual abuse. Bodee, mature beyond his years, supports her until she seems stronger and then presses her to make a full disclosure.  In turn, Lexi is pressuring him to swear out a disposition against his father.  It is a lovely story of the two teens growing closer, the mis-steps they take along the paths of high school dating, break-ups, drinking, and other pitfalls.  Lexi, in love with an imagined boy who leaves song lyrics on her desk, almost misses the real flesh-and-blood boy right in front of her.  If I were to find fault with the novel, it is in the portrayal of the minor characters around Lexi and Bodee: the girlfriends Liz and Heather are not fleshed-out individuals and the football player boyfriends are somewhat cartoonish stereotypes.  Stevens certainly has writing skills and could have made them more fully formed.  Also, Bodee speaks at times with the voice of a wise sage years older than his teens, which jars at times, but he is such a sympathetic and lovable character, it is forgiven.   One thing I must applaud Stevens for is her bravery in including references to God and religion in a Young Adult work.  The mother attends a prayer meeting, the kids have attended church school, and there is a definite thread of a religious nature throughout.  The author also in the back of the book has provided a special message to any boy or girl who has suffered rape or abuse, telling them it is never their fault, they can find help to a normal life again, and they must learn to trust again.  It is a beautiful, honest and brave footnote to the book.  Thank-you, Courtney. courtneyStevens

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The Demise of the Book Tour?

http://bit.ly/1hG8NNR

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun entitled “Tour de Farce” (9 May 2014) outlines the trials of the modern book tour.  Will it become a thing of  the past with the increasing popularity of the ebook and the cyber version of the book tour–the BLOG tour?  But that doesn’t exactly have the personal touch of meeting the author in person, hearing his/her voice, getting an autograph. …

Any comments from authors out there from authors, fans?

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Commercial Success While Breaking “the Rules”

museumcoverJust finished Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Full disclosure up front: I’m a fan of her work and have followed her writing for years, gone to hear her speak when possible, and have been influenced by her style in my own writing.  Now to the book: It is a simple story of a boy and girl who fall in love against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in 1911 New York City.  The boy is a young man who has made a living finding people who don’t want to be found–for a price, and the girl’s father displays her in a tank of water, painted blue and dressed like a mermaid, in his museum to make money.  Wrap these characters in the world of New York’s Dreamland–a fantastic amusement park–and surround them by “living wonders”–the freaks who work in the museum, and you get the makings of a story perhaps only Hoffman could have written.  It starts with her delicious prose describing individually the lives of the girl, Coralie Sardie, growing up isolated in this strange museum, and the boy, Eddie Cohen, alienated from his deeply religious father and Jewish roots, who wonders the streets of New York capturing images on film.  These two characters are like electrical currents who eventually cross paths.  When they do (and not until approximately 200 pages into the work), this reader mentally sat up and took notice.  When their lives cross, it is in conjunction with a body found by the edge of the river, and there’s nothing that gets the mystery reader’s heart racing more than a mysterious dead body.  Now, here I must point out that if Alice Hoffman were the type of writer who followed the pack of “commercially successful” writers, she would have opened the story with the scene by the river and the discovery of the body–boom–right on the first pages to hook the reader.  Not so Ms Hoffman who can still captivate with her prose and descriptions, her character development and her style.  Just flipping through the pages, a reader is struck by the long blocks of unbroken text.  It looks more like a classic than a contemporary novel.  More often these days each chapter is short, the sentences are rarely longer than two lines, and the prose is broken up by dialog quite often.  Hoffman also weaves themes through the work which must be set up and carefully revealed.  In Museum, she artfully returns to the leitmotif of fish/mermaids and water throughout the work, interposed with the idea of the captive wife in Jane Eyre and the living embodiment of a prisoner in the character of the wolfman, Mr. Morris, and Coralie herself.  And lastly, a lost locket and a stolen watch switch positions, playing at the roles of the lost and the found in their human counter-parts.  If I had to find fault with the novel I would (lightly) criticize the character of the coachman who, at times, came off as far too philosophical and educated for his circumstances and almost seemed to be a thinly-veiled mouthpiece for Hoffman herself.  Also, I found that the ending seemed rushed, things fell into place a bit too conveniently, but all in all in a satisfying way.  In the end, I have to conclude that we need more–much more–of Hoffman’s kind of writing.Hoffman

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Gatsby in 1925…Gatsby in 2014?

GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was released on this date (April 10) in 1925.  It was a critical success, but not a big seller.  The second printing left thousands of unsold copies in the warehouse.  How this must have discouraged Fitzgerald, who was likely hoping for a commercial success to help with his mounting debt. Why wasn’t it popular in its own time, and what about this novel has earned it a place in American literature and on every High School’s mandatory reading list? I’m sure volumes have been written on the answers to these questions, but now I wonder about a new one.  How would Fitzgerald fare in today’s publishing environment?  If Gatsby failed to sell, would he have been dropped by his publisher as a commercial flop?  Would he have turned to self-pub in order to find an audience? How many undiscovered Fitzgeralds are there out there now with a story that is not considered “commercially viable”?

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Book Signings in the E-Book Age

AliceHoffmanMagicI  recently attended a talk by one of my favorite authors, Alice Hoffman, in conjunction with the release of her new book, The Museum of Extraordinary Things.  After her remarks and question and answer session, she manned the obligatory book signing table and graciously posed with readers and signed their copies of her book.  I loved books signed by the author and have quite a few.  I’ll never send them off to the church fundraiser or the library donation box like so many others when my shelves threaten to collapse, because they have been made unique by a signature.  Then I started thinking, with the rise in popularity of the e-book, what is to become of author signings?  Will it become some quaint relic of the past like dance cards, phone books, and record albums? I hope not!  What can possibly replace this special author-reader ritual in the digital world? And moreover, what will become of the book collectors, the special or rare editions?  How about the body of evidence testifying to the lives of these men and women of letters– the memoirs and letters, works written in their youth, the juvenilia?  Will we be able to reconstruct these things from tweets, blog posts, and Facebook?

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