The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John Le Carré
For a book in which only the first and last chapters are action scenes, this award-winning spy novel has a big impact. Alec Leamas, 50, has just lost his last operative from East Berlin, and is called home by MI6 to London. He is given the option of retirement or one last revenge mission, to take down Mundt, who had his operatives killed. Deep under cover, Leamas takes to drink, works in a psychic library, has an affair with coworker Liz, punches a grocer, and ends up in jail. Afterward, he pretends to defect and spill his secrets for $15,000. Handed on from contact to contact, he tells all in Holland, then is sent with Fiedler to East Berlin. He is arrested, beaten up, then asked to testify against Mundt, who’d ordered his arrest. But MI6 has slipped up, contacting Liz, who just happens to be a communist, and paying Leamas’ outstanding bills. Twist after plot twist, with lots of suspense and deceit, neither the reader nor Leamas are sure in the end which is the right side. First published in the U.S. in 1964, awarded the Edgar and the Gold Dagger, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was made into a 1965 movie with Richard Burton as Leamas that also won an Edgar. This year, a TV mini-series based on the book will be released. Le Carré, writing under a pseudonym, taught at Eton before spending five years with the British Foreign Service, and has just published a memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. This very bleak look at the Cold War is still a terrific read.
The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake
An elegantly written first novel about ordinary people struggling to find their new normal after the war in 1947 Tokyo. This book is narrated by several people starting over, all connected by two school girls, Aya Shimamura and Fumi Tanaka. Fumi, whose father used to run a small bookshop, misses her older sister Sumiko, and wants Aya’s help in finding her. Sumiko is a dance hall girl, who has been bringing extra food and money home to the family. Aya is Japanese Canadian. She spent the war in a Canadian internment camp, and as her family is no longer welcome in Vancouver, they’ve returned to Japan. Their teacher Kondo moonlights as a letter writer for young Japanese women trying to stay in contact with their American GI boyfriends. Matt Matsumoto, Japanese American, is working with the American Army of Occupation, where he translates letters sent to General MacArthur. Aya and Fumi get lost one night, and Aya’s father asks Kondo to help find them. The author is a Japanese Canadian librarian, and she was inspired by a book of actual letters sent to General MacArthur by the Japanese people. Appealing characters, a truly unique setting, and a poignant, heartwarming plot made me sorry to finish this book.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
The reader meets the eclectic crew of the spaceship Wayfarer through the eyes of new records clerk Rosemary Harper, who’s always lived on Mars. Wayfarer tunnels through space to anchor new wormholes, and the crew spend a lot of time together, except for the aging navigator pair and the algae tech, who’s a workaholic. This is an engaging story, like a lighter Firefly or Voyager episode, which I really enjoyed reading. The crew have adventures and help save the day, but it’s really about getting to know the appealing human, alien, and artificial intelligence personalities on the ship. I’m looking forward to reading A Closed and Common Orbit, to be published in March.
The Corner Shop by Elizabeth Cadell
When Lucille Abbey travels to Hampshire to find out why three of her best employees have left the job of private secretary to Professor Hallam, she finds that the cottage is at the top of a steep hill, lacks basic amenities, and that the professor is quite unreasonable. Lucille can handle the job, the cottage, and the professor, but is soon off to Paris for a “vacation”, running her aunt’s small shop while she’s away. It becomes apparent that Lucille’s aunt is dishonest, and acquaintances from London and Hampshire keep turning up in Paris. A charming, pleasant read, with some mystery and a little romance. This book was published in 1967, and is a bit dated. Why am I reading and reviewing it now? I have enjoyed other books by Elizabeth Cadell in the past, but I’m currently looking to read and review books that were popular 50 years ago, as the Woodridge Public Library is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017. Information on special events can be found on the library’s website. The library owns 15 novels by Elizabeth Cadell, and she’s always a good choice if you’re looking for a light, gentle read.
Happy New Year!
Updraft by Fran Wilde
Kirit Densira lives in a remarkable world, high above the clouds, in towers made of living, growing bone. She is ready for her wing test, and hopes to be her mother’s apprentice. Ezarit is a trader who soars between towers. Kirit’s curiosity puts her in danger, and causes heavy penalties for her and her wing brother Nat. Kirit’s harsh singing voice may be surprisingly useful, and the Singers of the Spire want her to join them, but it’s hard to know who to trust. Full of adventure and intrigue, soaring heights and monsters in a suspenseful and compelling fantasy. I really enjoyed Kirit’s story, and look forward to reading about Nat in Cloudbound. I think fans of Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, which begins with Dragonsong, would enjoy Updraft, which won the Andre Norton award.
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
An absorbing first novel, in which Lord Nick Falcott, who is about to die in the battle of Salamanca in Spain in 1812, wakes up in a London hospital in 2003. The Guild have found him, and will spend a year acclimating him to the 21st century, then give him a pension and assign him a country. Time travelers can never return to their home country or time period. However, after enjoying life for several years in New England, Nick is summoned by the Guild, and sent back to his estate in England three years after he was declared dead, in order to help find a Guild enemy who is manipulating time nearby at Castle Dar. In 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather is dying, and Castle Dar will be inherited by her cousin Eamon. Julia learns that she can freeze time and travels to London to stay with Nick’s sisters and mother. Nick and Julia are attracted to each other, but the Guild has other plans for Nick. Full of adventure, intrigue, romance, and rich in historical detail, the author leaves open the possibility of a sequel. This debut is a good readalike for A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and the regency romance novels with a military focus by Carla Kelly.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
This short history of butter and butter making is a delicious read. Khosrova traveled around the world to watch butter being made and used, from sculpting butter cows in Iowa, to watching yaks being milked in Bhutan and discovering that yak butter tea made with fresh butter can be delicious. Butter has been made from the milk of camels, water buffaloes, goats, and sheep, as well as cows, for many thousands of years. Religious rituals using butter, superstitions about butter making, and a variety of churns are all described. The history of commercial butter making is included, along with butter’s possible health benefits and the mid-century battle of butter and margarine. Sadly, I grew up on margarine, but I don’t bake with it. I had no idea that butter has become trendy, tending to buy whatever brand of unsalted butter is on sale. I have recently sampled three premium butters: a sweet cream European style butter and cultured salted butters from Brittany and Wales. During a recent visit to a local chain supermarket, I found at least six more premium butters, including a two pound roll of Amish butter. A big box retailer has two selections, and a national chain of small grocery stores currently offers butter made from water buffalo milk with Himalayan sea salt. The butters I tried were all delicious, especially on bread. I will still use basic butter most of the time, but where butter is featured in a recipe, like shortbread cookies or puff pastry, I’m looking forward to using a richer tasting, lower moisture premium butter. Recipes from simple to sophisticated are included, including two methods for making your own butter. The author trained as a pastry chef, has worked as a food writer for a test kitchen, and edits a magazine about cheese. A long list of recommended butters is included. This is one of the most enjoyable microhistories I have read.
Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
A long, leisurely read about the history of making and using paper, as well as papyrus and parchment. Wall screens, lanterns and lamp shades, kites, balloons, gun cartridges, and even clothing have been made from paper. One of the first uses of paper was to wrap food, and it’s long been used in prayer flags and to burn at religious ceremonies. The history of printing is also described, and the rise and fall of newspapers. Paper making involves a reliable supply of cold, running water, a large supply of linen or cotton rags or other plants, and skilled paper makers. With their arms constantly in cold water manipulating heavy frames, paper making was arduous work, but skilled workers could travel to another area to find work at another paper mill, or start a new mill. Over the centuries there has been a rising demand for paper, and also the plants or used cloth needed to make it. Surprisingly, paper wasn’t made from wood pulp until around 1850. The use of paper doesn’t seem to have declined in this century, and there is a renewed interest in handmade and other specialty papers for writing, painting, and drawing, and paper is still being made from a variety of materials. An interesting and informative microhistory, but not a page turner.