Friday 8 February 2013

Books and tea on a cold, snowy day...

Since it’s very cold and snowy today, and the weather forecast is for clearer, sunnier days for the weekend, I thought this afternoon was the perfect time to write about books while drinking my rather uninspired, but still steaming, cup of orange pekoe tea.

I read two books this week that I want to write about, but first I want to talk about something that was mentioned in two books I’ve recently been reading or listening to.  I read Lam’s Headmaster’s Wager and at one point in the last half of the book, when Chen is talking to someone of influence, his son is given a bottle of Fanta as a treat and sent off to leave the adults alone to talk.  Remember, this book was set in Vietnam during the Vietnam war.  The other day I was listening to an audio book, Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, which tells the story of Leo Demidov, a former KGB member who, after an event occurs which changes his life and the lives of his family members, spends the next 16 years searching for the truth behind that event.  The novel spans nearly three decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s, and moves from the Soviet Union to New York to Afghanistan.  I didn’t realize that it is the third in a trilogy, but I feel that this title could certainly be read as a stand-alone.  While I’ve really enjoyed listening to it, I found that the section which took place in Afghanistan was a bit too gruesome, and offered too many graphic descriptions of torture and murder, for my liking.  (I guess I prefer not to know what is really happening during a military invasion and occupation).  Anyway, the reason I mention this book now is that again, Fanta is mentioned, this time not as a treat for a child, but as a weapon in Afghanistan in the 1980s - well, not the beverage itself, but the broken bottle in which it was held.  I can’t remember the last time I heard about this beverage, and now twice in less than a week it crops up in two very different novels.  I didn’t even think they still made Fanta!

I finished reading Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene the other night, and I was not disappointed.  It tells the story of Mr. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana in the late 1950s who is
recruited by the British Intelligence Service, I think MI6, to run agents and collect information in Cuba.  Wormold doesn’t have a clue about how to do this job, but he needs the extra money in order to satisfy the materialistic needs of his daughter, Millie, on whom he dotes.  He creates phantom agents and bogus reports, which he submits to the Service, collecting the money for this “agents” himself.  When his reports are taken seriously and the Service begins to act on the information, Wormold tries to get himself out of the situation, but he doesn’t know what to do or how to do it.  While this satirical novel makes fun of the British Intelligence Service and its willingness to believe in fictitious reports from phantom agents, it is also a disturbing look into the dark underworld of the Secret Service.  It was a really quick, interesting read, at times amusing, at others quite disturbing.  I looked this novel up before I started reading it, and found out that Greene began working for MI6 in the 1940s.  It appears that Wormold is based on Agent Garbo, a Spanish double agent who was sending misinformation to his German handlers about a fictitious ring of agents under his control throughout England.  He was collecting their expenses for himself.  When I read that, I went to my stack of Advance Reading Copies and found the title I thought I remembered bringing home from work, Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty.  I gave that book to my husband to read, and thought it was interesting to see us sitting side by side last week, he reading the non-fiction title while I read Greene’s novel.  It was interesting, too, that this novel confirmed some of the ideas presented in the BBC series “MI5”, such as the running of phantom agents to collect extra money, and the fact that the Service prefers their agents to have relationships with other agents, not to get involved with “outsiders”.  I would definitely recommend this as a quick, interesting read, but I’m afraid that I didn’t find it quite as “light-hearted” as perhaps Greene intended.

And I just finished Losing You by Nicci French this morning.  This 2006 novel tells the story of Nina, a mother who, a week before Christmas, is getting ready to leave her home in the UK for a holiday in Florida with her two children and her new boyfriend.  When her 15-year old daughter, Charlie, is late getting home from a sleepover to pack and prepare for the trip, Nina begins to worry.  As time ticks by and Charlie still doesn’t turn up, worry turns to panic as she tries to find her daughter.  To complicate matters, no one seems to believe that Charlie is missing, suggesting that she is merely behaving as any teenager would by going off on her own for a bit.  Nina refuses to believe this, and struggles to make others see that the situation is getting more and more desperate as time passes.  In the end, she must pursue her own leads and follow her instincts if she is going to find Charlie alive.  I had no expectations about this novel when I started it yesterday.  As I was reading, I thought that it was like reading a novel plotted by Michael Robotham but written by Joy Fielding.  A few things I noted about the structure of the novel:  the whole story takes place within a few hours on the same day, and it has no chapters, just paragraphs of text which are infrequently separated into sections by a space.  I imagine this was done intentionally, to make the reader experience the desperation Nina feels as the day drags on endlessly, and it was fairly effective for this reader.  It was, however, unevenly written, somewhat unbelievable, and ultimately disappointing.  Perhaps it’s just me, because Nicci French’s books are international bestsellers, but I just found this novel, and others I’ve listened to as audio books, to be confusing, with too many points left unexplained, too many events or characters that are inconsistent.  So, since I feel I’ve made more than a fair effort with this author team, I feel I can safely scratch them off my list of “Authors to read”.

Now I must find something else to read.  Hmmm... my "friends" book group is discussing The Help in a couple of weeks (appropriate for Black History Month), and my ladies' book group is discussing The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford next, but that's not until March 9th, so it's too early to read that title, although I just picked it up from the library.  What I need to do is determine my reading mood, which would help to narrow my choices.  Mystery?  Tried and true title?  Canadian title?  Literary?  Plot-driven?  I'll have to spend some time on this, and will hopefully have some good reading news for you next week.

Bye for now!

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