Sunday, 18 December 2016

Spies all around us...

It’s been a week of espionage fiction, both in audio and regular paperback, offering very different reading/listening experiences for me.
I was at a loss last weekend in terms of what to read, as I had no library books checked out and nothing that I had to read for my committee.  It was a dilemma, one I solved by turning my head slightly to the left and scanning the bookshelf that is closest to my reading chair.  My eyes lit upon the Ian McEwan section, and I realized that there were still two of his books that I own but haven’t yet read, Solar and Sweet Tooth.  I decided quite randomly to read the one with fewer pages, and Sweet Tooth won by nine pages.  In the opening chapter, we meet Serena Frome (“rhymes with “plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, whose first 18 years were so uneventful that she skips over them almost completely.  She has a younger sister, Lucy, who gets herself into a bit of a trouble and goes on to live a hippie-ish lifestyle, despite the fact that it’s the early 1970s.  Serena, on the other hand, does what her mother advises and goes to Cambridge to study mathematics, even though her real passion is reading fiction.  She will read anything, from Jane Austen to Ian Fleming, and anything in between.  She begins seeing a history student, then begins an affair with his professor, Tony Canning, with whom she spends a wonderful summer (weekends only) on a remote island.  Tony teaches her to cook and takes charge of her reading program, insisting she read history texts rather than fiction.  Serena falls in love with Tony, but is unexpectedly spurned by him one weekend, leaving her devastated.  She does, however, follow Tony’s advice and, upon finishing school,  begins working at MI5 in a low-level position.  She forms few friendships, but manages to form an alliance with Shirley Shilling, with whom she works on her floor of the building.  Serena also becomes fixated on a man from another floor of the building, Max, and believes that they are heading towards a relationship.  Serena is finally approached about going out in the field and working undercover as a literary agent, trying to recruit new arts talent, specifically Tom Healy, a graduate student at one of the new colleges who has written some short stories and is to be approached to write a novel.  He is to receive funding, under the guise of a literary foundation that promotes artists whose works have been politically challenged or censored.  She takes on this project, named “Sweet Tooth”, and meets up with Tom at his college office, where he is an assistant lecturer.  She falls instantly in love with him, and they arrange liaisons at his flat on weekends.  Meanwhile, Shirley is suddenly sacked, Serena is furious, but no one will tell her why this happened.  She continues to see Tom, and his novel, which she secretly hates, is being promoted by his publisher as a contender for the Jane Austen literary prize.  All seems to go swimmingly for the couple, but Serena constantly feels guilty that she is deceiving the man she loves, pretending to be someone she is not.  Does she reveal the fact that she works for MI5 and not the literary foundation?  If so, would Tom despise her and end the relationship?  But can she live with herself knowing the relationship is founded on lies?  When I started this book, I was happy to see that McEwan had returned to espionage fiction, like his 1990 novel The Innocent.  But I was soon disappointed when I realized that this was not an espionage novel, it was a love story, and a fairly predictable one at that.  I felt that the characters were underdeveloped and the story uninspired, despite being very literary.  I don’t want to give anything away, but I personally thought that the “big reveal” was pretty much what I expected, although it may account for the shallowness of the main characters.  When I first read McEwan’s 2007 novel, On Chesil Beach, I felt as though it had been a waste of time, but once I had time to think about it, I realized that it was, in fact, a brilliant novel.  I was hoping that the same would happen with this book, but alas, it did not.  The writing was solid, the characters believable (though not very interesting), and the story was OK.  I just felt that it lacked that special something, that “je ne c’est quoi” that would really make it a great book.  If nothing else, this book has made me interested in possibly rereading his Booker Prize nominated 1981 novel, The Comfort of Strangers, and possibly watching again the fabulous film adaptation of this book, starring Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren. I would rate Sweet Tooth 7 out of 10, and would not recommend it to anyone who has never read anything by McEwan before. By the way, I’m anxiously awaiting notification from the library that his new book, Nutshell, is ready for me to pick up - maybe that will happen over the Christmas Break (“Please, Santa!  I promise I’ve been good this year!”)

And I finished listening to a novel by Daniel Silva, A Death in Vienna, the fourth book in the “Gabriel Allon” series.  It begins with a bomb exploding at a Holocaust research centre in Vienna, killing two researchers and injuring the director of the centre, Eli Levon.  Gabriel Allon is brought in to help find out who sent the bomb, and despite his desire to give up his work as an assassin for the Israeli Office and live out his days peacefully (and safely) as an art restorer, he leaves Venice and travels to Vienna, the city where, over a decade earlier, a bomb went off in his car, killing his son and injuring his wife so badly that she remains hospitalized to this day, having lost her mind over grief and guilt.  Levon, after all, is an old friend, whose mission in life is to hunt down Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice.  It turns out that Levon had been working on a case brought to him by Max Klein, a fellow Jew who thought he recognized a former Nazi SD officer, Erich Radek, living in Vienna under a new name, Ludwig Vogel.  When Klein is also killed, Allon is compelled to follow the clues that lead him deeper and deeper into the world of the Nazi prison camps during WWII, and his own mother’s experiences as a prisoner at Treblinka and as a participant in the Death Marches in 1945, led by Radek.  The search takes him from Austria to Israel to Argentina, and involves not only the Israeli Office, but also the American CIA.  I don’t want to give any more details away about this complex plot, but if you are in the mood for a fast-paced spy thriller, this may be the book for you.  Of course it is not completely believable, but it’s not supposed to be.  The purpose of plot-driven books is to transport the reader and to entertain.  To quote an article I recently read, “Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences” (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/).  It kept me listening eagerly right to the end, and it was narrated by John Lee, which may have played a small part in my sustained interest!  It’s not great literature, but it was certainly complex and interesting, and the myriad of characters kept my attention fixed on the narrative to keep them all straight.  It was a satisfying listening experience, and I would seek out others in this series to listen to (especially if they were narrated by "you-know-who"!).  As a fast-paced thriller, I would give it an 8 out of 10.

That’s all for today.  Have a warm, wintery afternoon!

Bye for now…
Julie

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