Armchair Adventures

In case you wonder what the *** mean in my reviews, there’s a key on the book reviews page. They’re a good guide to how much I liked a book—since my reviews leave open the possibility a read I found meh might suit someone else perfectly.

****The Dead Don’t Sleep
By Steven Max Russo—It has taken five decades for the long arm of retribution to reach halfway around the world and tap the shoulder of Frank Thompson. Today, Frank is a recent widower living in rural Maine, and he doesn’t talk about Vietnam, but the buddies of the American he shot there so many years ago have found him.

The three men are full of plans for tracking him down, and for the massive, highly illegal firepower needed for this mission, one fueled with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. They’re all about Frank’s age, nearly 70, which is a stretch. I can imagine guys in their twenties and even thirties talking themselves into such a crazy plan. Yet the author makes clear the years haven’t added to these guys’ store of common sense or muted their violent tendencies.

From his home in New Jersey, Frank’s nephew Bill knows about the danger and wants to help. He has zero experience with the kinds of situations Frank has seen, and his indecision alone is enough to tell you he’d be a liability in any kind of showdown. “Stay home!” I kept telling Bill telepathically. He doesn’t listen.

This is Steven Max Russo’s second thriller. He’s an advertising executive and lives in New Jersey, which accounts for his solid descriptions of life here in the Garden State.

*****The Wild One
By Nick Petrie – This is Nick Petrie’s fifth thriller featuring PTSD-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Peter Ash, and it retains all the energy of his earlier works. Ash’s old war-buddy seeks his help in locating an eight-year-old boy, who disappeared a year earlier from his Washington, DC, home, after witnessing his mother’s murder. The kidnapper is most likely the boy’s own father, the presumed killer, and he’s most hiding out with his tight-knit family in remote northern Iceland.

The mother, Sarah, ran a computer security business. On a client’s servers, she discovered career-ending evidence of criminality among Washington’s political class. She sets up a mirror server with an unbreakably long encryption key preserved in only one form, in the photographic memory of her son Óskar. The bad guys want it.

Ash has plenty of antagonists, aside from his internal demons. There’s the mysterious crew following him: do they want him to find Eric and Óskar? Or not? There is Erik’s paranoid extended family, not averse to ensuring their privacy with violence. There is the head of the Icelandic Hjálmar, relentless in trying to bring Peter in. But perhaps his greatest adversary is Iceland’s brutal, dead-of-winter weather. A more apt metaphor would be difficult to find. So, throw on a couple of sweaters, make yourself a cup of something hot, and settle in for a wild ride.

If there’s anything to object to in Petrie’s work, it’s a tendency to reach a little too far in the closing pages. In this book, a final act of violence puzzled me, because it came out of the blue. But that wasn’t enough to negate everything solid that had gone before. Do note that Ash is now a wanted man and has no passport or I.D. It will be interesting to see how he gets back to Oregon. I’m hoping Petrie plans to tell me.

Photo: Sasint Tipchai for Pixabay

Other People’s Problems

Reading

Memoir is not my favorite genre, but lately I’ve read a couple of interesting ones—about a misbegotten woman and an idolized father—and two nonfiction stories about the trials of war, one with a happy ending, one not.

****Celibacy: A Love Story
By Mimi Bull – The book’s subtitle as the punchline, “Memoir of a Catholic Priest’s Daughter.” As a child in a world of secrets, she was adopted by an older woman and her twenty-something daughter. It doesn’t surprise that her “sister” turns out to be her mother. Only after the mother dies does Mimi learn who her father was. Despite the lack of suspense, the book is fascinating. The adult Mimi and her husband lived in Istanbul, in Sedona, in Vienna. A unique story, charmingly told.

**The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
By Lucette Lagnado – I heard about this book while I was in Egypt, a country that once had a significant Jewish population, until Egyptian President Nasser forced them to leave. To the child Lucette, Cairo and her family’s apartment were paradise, and her father was king. When they are exiled, a Jewish aid agency finds them a disreputable lodging in Paris and an unsatisfactory apartment in New York. Lucette’s father’s business is murky; in New York, he sells fake Italian neckties. The family hates its new life. Lucette blindly adored her father, but I cannot tell you why.

****Escape from Paris
By Stephen Harding – This is the true story of a group of American airmen shot down over France and the complicated escape routes the French set up for them. Danger is on all sides. One of the safe houses is right under the nose of the Nazis, in the apartment of the caretaker of the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb. Very exciting!

***The 21
By Martin Mosebach – As the cover proclaims, this is “a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs.” On February 15, 2015, twenty-one young Egyptian men, ISIS captives, were marched onto a beach in Libya and beheaded. The video recording of that event went around the world. What was most striking was the dignity and faith they maintained until the end. The author sets out trying to learn about them, their home villages, and the faith that supported them. A bit philosophical for me, but I read it to pay my respects.

****Passport to Death

By Yigal Zur, translated from Hebrew by Sara Kitai. This thriller, recently translated into English, features former Israeli security operative Dotan Naor, whose firm has something of a specialty of rescuing Israelis who find themselves in tricky situations abroad. In his new case, a pretty young woman named Sigal Bardon, age 26, has gone missing in Bangkok, and her family wants her back.

Naor is a cynical narrator, intimately familiar with that southeast Asian city, having spent time there off and on for two decades. If he had to guess, he would chalk Sigal’s disappearance up to a drug overdose—heroin, Bangkok gold. There are a lot of bad ways that story can end, and he knows most of them.

Once in Bangkok, Naor takes a room in the heart of Patpong, a nexus of unsavory activity, and a district where information about Sigal, or the woman herself, is likely to be found, traded, or bought. On a sweltering day he takes a ride in an air-conditioned cab. The driver offers the usual drugs and girls, and he also has passports belonging to Sigal Bardon and someone named Micha Waxman. Naor buys both, plus the information that the driver drove them to the train station. This encounter is too much of a coincidence, and Naor wonders who’s trailing him, who recruited this driver, who’s anticipating his mission.

The complicated plot involving a diverse cast of Israeli expats, drug kingpins, and Thai Tourist Police moves along briskly. Sigal herself remains something of a cipher, but the colorful supporting characters—monks, fortune tellers, whore mistresses, and Naor’s old Shin Bet acquaintances, troublesome though they may be—are vivid.

Throughout the story, Naor hears echoes of his past and the scandal that ended his special forces career. Old companions lurk in Bangkok’s dark corners, but are they allies or adversaries? He takes the pessimistic view: “The past surged up and flooded over me like a sewer that had overflowed.”

Every clue that Naor tracks down solidifies his initial impression that drug dealing is at the center of Sigal’s disappearance. But is she still alive? Her sister thinks so, but says little. The drug lords she doublecrossed think so and want her themselves. Waxman thought so, but he’s dead.

Zur’s rich descriptions of Bangkok permeate every scene and engage all the senses. This isn’t a story that could take place anywhere else, and by the time you turn the last page, you may feel like you’ve been there. And you’ll be glad to have made the trip from the comfort of your reading chair, out of danger and chaos.

Zur’s previous thriller Death in Shangri-La was also fun!

Photo: cegoh for Pixabay

Busy Day

For the two new members of our family. “First we tore apart this feather thing, then we went to the vet.” Hard to get a clear picture. I tell them to stand still, but . . .

****Naked Came the Florida Man

By Tim Dorsey – “ʻDon’t shoot guns into the hurricane.’ Elsewhere this would go without saying, but Floridians need to be told,” this antic crime novel begins, as Dorsey takes the familiar Florida man premise to absurd heights (or is it depths?). His hero, the aptly named Serge A. Storms, who has no discernible occupation, has plotted a picaresque adventure for himself and his dim friend, Coleman. Serge will drive them around Florida in his 50-year-old gold Plymouth Satellite, visiting the graves of past Florida luminaries.

Enlightening Coleman along their route, Dorsey/Serge painlessly and idiosyncratically covers Florida’s history, sociology, meteorology, and biology. Before long, you know quite a bit more about this quirky state than you did on page one. Florida with its extreme weather, its swarms of insects, its snakes and gators, its cultural hodgepodge, its tony suburbs and ramshackle sugar cane towns lend themselves perfectly to Serge’s non-stop snarky commentary

Several other plot threads, past and present, weave throughout. First is the story of the deadly 1928 hurricane that created a massive storm surge—not in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, where you’d expect, but in Lake Okeechobee—that killed some 2500 people. Pertinent to Dorsey’s tale, a rich sugar baron’s fortune in gold coins was lost in the calamity. The fate of the gold is one of the riches of this tall tale.

Most of the novel is devoted to Serge and Coleman’s adventures and clearly channels Serge’s manic psyche. His mind is like a rambunctious puppy, dashing here and there, nibbling this and that. At times the two men launch into a jag of childishness, racing and chasing each other, finger-painting murals for their motel walls, dressing as clowns, and generally acting up.

It’s hard to reconcile that light-hearted Serge with the man who plans (elaborately, of course) and carries out four diabolical murders. His victims aren’t blameless, but the gruesome methods by which they die almost put me off the book. But I hung in there, and I’m glad. Dorsey was a reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune for twelve years and has twenty-two previous novels. The Boston Globe calls him “compulsively irreverent and shockingly funny.” A trip with his man Serge is most definitely a wild ride.

Order from Amazon here.

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

*****The Spy and the Traitor

By Ben Macintyre – A pal of John Le Carré, Ben Macintyre brings the novelist’s gift for writing compelling characters and page-turning narrative to the nonfiction realm. The Spy and the Traitor, subtitled “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” is based on the defection to Britain of KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky, and it provides at least as many thrills as the best espionage novel.

Gordievsky, raised in a family where working for the KGB is the family business, becomes disenchanted with Soviet hypocrisy. Posted to Denmark, he has a tantalizing taste of what life is like when lived outside a surveillance society. A British MI6 agent, working in Copenhagen under classic diplomatic cover, notices him and several modest bits of outreach are made by the two of them, but nothing comes of it. Gordievsky, however, sees his future and when he returns to Moscow, works at becoming accepted into the KGB’s English-language training program. Finally, he succeeds. After a few years, he’s posted to London.

Then the connection is made, and over at least a dozen years, he secretly works for MI6.

The intelligence he provides and particularly his insights into the Soviet mindset are pivotal in the late Cold War era, and he provides significant background for Margaret Thatcher’s meetings with Soviet leaders. His advice helps her craft proposals they can accept. It’s vital and thrilling diplomacy, all accomplished well out of public view.

I especially enjoyed the intriguing nuggets of tradecraft Macintyre drops as he follows Gordievsky’s twisting path. That level of detail is just one feature inspiring confidence in the narration and investment in the protagonist’s fate.

Throughout his years spying for Britain, Gordievsky is, of course, acutely aware that Soviet paranoia is ever on the lookout for leaks and traitors. MI6 is so protective of him, they do not even reveal his identity to the Americans. Good thing, too, because the head of counterintelligence in the CIA at the time—Aldrich Ames—is himself a double agent. Ames ultimately betrays more than two dozen Western spies inside Soviet intelligence, effectively signing their death warrants. His motive? Money.

Every so often, Gordievsky and his family are required to return to the Soviet Union for a term of months or years. This is the normal rotation to prevent personnel from becoming too attached to their place of posting. In case he comes under suspicion while inside the Iron Curtain, MI6 prepares an elaborate escape plan. No one is truly confident this plan can work, least of all Gordievsky. A breakdown at any point will be disastrous. But once Ames fingers him, they must give it a try, and that whole episode is a real nail-biter.

Macintyre’s book won the 2019 Gold Dagger for nonfiction, an award sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. John Le Carré calls The Spy and the Traitor, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

Photo: tiburi for Pixabay.

*****The Kennedy Moment

By Peter Adamson – In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, the reunion of five college friends launches a do-good project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes.

In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, a stubbornly Marxist professor writes to the others, “We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.” He proposes a reunion.

Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organization team on childhood immunization; Seema Mir works on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.

The relationships among these friends, especially the two almost-couples (Michael and Seema; Toby and Hélène), are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.

At the reunion, Toby, with his flair for the outrageous, responds to the health professionals’ angst over vaccine-preventable illnesses saying, “Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of cached smallpox virus and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunizes every last kiddie.”

A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and before long they have a plan to use smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunization commitments. But it must be carried out in complete secrecy.

Predictably, the government focuses not on meeting these mysterious demands, but on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism, and a nail-biting chase is on. Meanwhile, Toby crafts a powerful statement for the US President: “Twenty years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.”

I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. Hugely satisfying and out of the ordinary. Available here.

Photo: anjawbk for Pixabay.

Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!