The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker – Book

The Dreamers by Karen Thomas Walker is a story of a viral outbreak, think ebola, only without bodily fluids. This virus hits a small college in the middle of nowhere, a tiny town, one road in-one road out. Where did the virus originate? Some said a strange haze moved through their college town one day. The town is in the middle of a drought. Is that the cause? The author suggests that letters from earlier centuries hint at a similar infection.

The virus strikes in the freshman college dorm first. Mei is a new student at Santa Lora who is finding social life difficult, but her roommate Kara connects with the other students easily. Kara is the first to feel woozy, she is the first to fall into her bed fully dressed after a night of drinking and partying, and she is also the first to die from whatever this is.

Caleb is the only person in the dorm who has the social skills to deal with Kara’s grieving parents. When the students drown their seriousness in a party that is pure escapism Caleb puts the moves on Rebecca, child of a religious family, home schooled, but finding herself a social success at school When he wakes everyone up in the morning with his screaming there is Rebecca in his bed and she has the virus.

The author tells us, “The first stage of sleep is the lightest, the brief letting go, like the skipping of a stone across the water. This is the nodding of a head in a theater. This is the dropping of a book in bed. Rebecca falls quickly into that first layer. Ten more minutes. She sinks further, just the beginning of the deep dive. This is when a sudden dream floats through her. She is at church with her parents. A baby is being baptized,”

The virus turns people into dreamers who cannot be awakened. If they are not fed through tubes and given water through IV’s they die of dreaming. It seems just a gentle virus, and few discussions of gross bodily functions trouble that dreamy quality (although such care must also be required).

I enjoyed reading The Dreamers but it left me with more questions than answers. Is it symbolic that this happens in a college town? Is it symbolic that the woods are dying from an attack by insects, that the lake is drying up from a long string of perfectly sunny days – a drought? Is it symbolic that the college administrators house the dreamers in a library?

The author takes us through the disciplines of thinkers who have dealt with dreaming, with mental time travel, with the past, present and the future – the Classics, the Psychology section, the Philosophers, the Physicists, the Linguists. Time does seem to morph for these dreamers in subtle ways.

Is it symbolic that Rebecca sleeps with a “sleeper” – a baby growing inside unknown to all, a baby whose every stage of development is described. Why does Rebecca dream that she has a boy child and then lose her sweet boy when she is delivered of a girl. She goes through the rest of her life loving her daughter but missing her son, who seemed more real in that dream state than what turns up in her actual life?

As with any virus some who fall to dreaming never wake up.

Is the small fire that begins in the forest and is quickly put out a foreshadowing of another key fire in this story?

The isolation of the college perhaps stops the virus from becoming widespread. So many volunteers show up to tend to the dreamers. In spite of protective suits and masks some get ill anyway and take their place on a cot. Some defy their suits to offer some personal gesture to a dreamer and get infected. Once you come into the village you cannot leave.

I just don’t know if this book simply takes us through an experience, the way an epidemic does, or if it has a point, a meaning, is perhaps a conceit, an extended metaphor. It strikes me as a skillful exercise in writing, immersive, beautifully realized, but, except for the baby growing in the midst of all that sleepiness in that lovely dying landscape, it seems without relevance, especially since it happens in a place almost as remote in time and place as Brigadoon. Perhaps a deeper message will dawn on me at some later moment. However Walker truly created a dreamy quality and that is skillful, like a painter who can capture transparency.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – The Bibliofile

There, There by Tommy Orange – Book

Cover photo of There There, by Tommy Orange

The acclaim There, Thereby Tommy Orange has earned is well deserved. I would think that there is nothing quite like it in the catalogue of the literature of indigenous people. There have been successful books, both fiction and nonfiction, by Native Americans, but this has a very modern sensibility and form.

Native Americans for the most part do not occupy their ancestral lands and we all know why. Although we cannot change what our nation’s forefathers did through arrogance, their misguided assurance of their supremacy as white-skinned people, their social structure which favored populated cities surrounded by farms, and their fear of warriors who were trying to make these settlers leave for reasons we can well understand, when Tommy Orange exposes the way we have turned a multiverse of Native Americans into a single stereotype we see that we are guilty.

Tommy Orange keeps these guilty realities sometimes in the foreground and sometimes tucked away in the background. We arrive early in his novel at the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. What seemed like a fine symbolic gesture and a bid for active resistance against being assigned to reservations without any choice proved to be an untenable situation, in terms of supply lines, the harshness of the island itself with its dilapidated prison, and interpersonal relationships that went off the rails without strong leadership.

Orange makes it a point to tell us that it was believed that Native Americans would either hate cities or be assimilated into American cities, but then he shows us that urban areas have actually allowed Indians to keep their culture alive. I use the word Indian only because the author does. In every city there are Indian Centers and the stories, songs, and dances are keep alive and shared. If they aren’t shared person-to-person, they are shared on the internet.

“But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”

At first we seem to be reading a series of essays and short stories about Orange’s characters, but we can feel the pull of some event that ties all the elements together. Opal Viola Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather are sisters (to understand their non-matching surnames, read the book). Around these two revolve the stories of many other characters, mostly men and young boys. Overall looms the Pow Wow planned for the Oakland Coliseum towards which everyone moves to finally meet on a single fateful day.

I would have wished for a more upbeat ending, for more hope and the promise of positive outcomes. But this book, while it invites us all to read it, may not be something all of us can understand in a soul deep way, at least not without some time and thought. The ending, along with other factors, is what makes this book literature instead of just fiction. I may not belong at the pow wow, but we all may be headed for some sort of urban apocalypse, after which life will probably still go on, for good or ill.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR

Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts – Book

Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts is the second book in a trilogy called Chronicles of the One. This is a dystopian saga, but it is not Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Roberts pits wholesomeness, the sweetness of summer sunshine, bees, honey, family, children, love—life lived simply and communally—against lives that feature hate, fear, intolerance, and brutality.

When Mr. McLeod cracked the shield and dark Magick was loosed on the world, two-thirds of the world’s population died of an incurable virus which became known as the Doom. Many survivors found themselves with magical talents. Some became faeries, some elves, and some witches. The world split into the light and the dark and war was in the air. Humans who survived with no magical talents also split between good and evil. Some humans felt that magical creatures were an abomination and they tortured, killed, or executed them whenever they got the chance. What was left of governments captured magical creatures ostensibly to save them and to study them, but they imprisoned them and strapped them to metal tables so they could learn what they could and then eliminated them. And gangs bent on chaos and mayhem killed anyone who was vulnerable.

The child of Lana and Max, two witches who had to flee NYC in the worst days of the Doom (Book 1),  Fallon Smith, was known to be “the One” who would set things right before she was even born. Fallon has lived quietly on an isolated farm with her family but now, on her thirteenth birthday, Mallick comes to take Fallon away for training. From here on the story resembles the King Arthur story, except this time the King is a woman. Mallick is her Merlin and when she successfully finishes her training she wins the sword and the shield from the sacred well. During her training she also wins three unusual and powerful companions.

It’s a great tale even if Fallon is a bit like heroic Barbie and the young man, Duncan that she meets in New Hope is a bit too much like Ken. Fortunately, although the novel holds out the promise of romance at some point in the future, for now it stays focused on war and setting the world to rights. This seems as if it would make a great YA fantasy series depending on where it goes in Book 3.

I liked Of Blood and Bone. Apparently, in real life, there was a little issue about two similar titles between two authors, but it was settled amicably I believe. I look forward to the third book. But if we find ourselves in a truly dystopian world I don’t expect that Magick (or even magic) will save us. There is too much fantasy in this to put it in the category of dystopian literature. Still when you need entertainment this trilogy could be a fun choice for a quick break from more serious fare.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Characters Wanted

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver – Book

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is not the first book by this author that I have read. I have enjoyed her writing since her first book, The Bean Trees, appeared in 1988. I have also read Pigs in Heaven, Prodigal Summer, Flight Behavior, and The Poisonwood Bible (although I think I read all these books before I joined goodreads.com).

Kingsolver is an environmentalist who likes to use fiction to call attention to the havoc human excesses wreak on nature. She does it subtly, but unmistakably in very readable novels, that reflect the changing zeitgeist of the 30 years she, and we, have lived through since she started writing.

Her inspiration for Unsheltered came when she learned of a woman scientist named Mary Treat and she was given access to her notes and correspondence. Dr. Treat was a woman ahead of her time, a wife who thrived when her husband left her. She was fascinated by the plants and insects that lived in the Pine Barrens that were near her home. She filled her living room with small jars that look like terraria, but each contained a tower-building spider (small variety of tarantula).

Mary Treat wrote letters to Charles Darwin, who had recently published his Origin of the Species, a book that seemed to refute God, and set the world on fire, and he wrote back. She wrote to Dr. Asa Gray and he also answered her letters. Mary Treat is real, and a truly interesting woman. Thatcher Greenwood is also real. When he married his wife Rose, her family owned the house next door to Mary Treat. Thatcher Greenwood was hired to teach science in a high school run by a man who believed Darwin to be an abomination. The house he is living in was poorly built and is falling apart, as is his life.

A parallel story 150 years after Darwin’s book was published, gives us a family of the Trump era, living in the second incarnation of Thatcher Greenwood’s house, which was rebuilt by a second someone, equally without regard for sound building principals. A twice-unlucky house. When Willa’s family inherits the house in New Jersey from her Aunt, it is at a time when the economy is changing for everyone. Willa, a writer, loves her solid career footing but then the magazine she writes for fails. If she stays in New Jersey she will have to accept freelance writing jobs. Iano, her husband, a professor of political science cannot find a path to tenure, and in middle age is still working as an adjunct.

Their son, Zeke, is left, tragically, with a baby son, who he leaves with Willa to try for a tech startup with his college roommate. He owes $110,000 in college loans which he must pay off. Tig, their daughter, is an enigma as a member of what seems to be a whole new generation. She is a dynamic, pint-sized activist with dreadlocks who lived in Cuba for a year and took part in the Occupy movement. Tig (short for Antigone) may have the best grasp on our new shifting social landscape.

The house is what ties the two eras together and the two “evolutionary” women, Mary Treat and Antigone Tavoularis (Tig). As the house falls down around the inhabitants some find it extremely unsettling and others find it strangely freeing.

Kingsolver is a queen of dialogue, which makes her novels flow easily along, in spite of how dense the content seems after the fact. It was interesting that she never mentioned the modern folks who still deny Darwin and the sneaky tactics they often employ to make it mandatory to teach “Creationism” in 21st century schools. She may not have wanted to focus on something more political than environmental. The literary device that has us skipping back and forth over 150 years in every other chapter makes the reader look forward to getting back to the story line that will be taken up in the next chapter.

We have wandered pretty far from nature and I wonder how many of us would feel comfortable without a home base. Is there a generational divide, or will that disappear as mature responsibilities must be met? Will we have to learn to respect nature and live in greater harmony, without many of the creature comforts that we have convinced ourselves prove that we are above other living things. Will we ever be able to overcome our sense of superiority and separateness which allows us to believe that our survival trumps (sorry) theirs? Will we ever learn to feel our organic connection to every living and nonliving thing on this planet?

Engaging our thoughts is a hallmark of a skilled author. I can’t decide if the separation in time is so large that this felt more like two stories that blinked on and off like lights or if the connections are powerful enough to unify the novel. However this is a relatively insignificant flaw which was not jarring enough to ruin my enjoyment of Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Unsheltered.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – KUOW

Year One by Nora Roberts – Book

 

Nora Roberts, author of Year One usually writes romance novels. I do enjoy a good romance novel. It doesn’t necessarily give your brain a workout but it sends you on an emotional journey that often ends in a happy sigh and a temporary uplift in your spirts. Lately I forgo the brief jolt of endorphins offered by fake joy for books with a more mental punch. But I will say that I think even fake joy can make your day. This time Nora Roberts goes off the chart and gives us an apocalypse. Even if it still encompasses a good deal of romance, there is also suspense and grief and magic and black magic, and this is only the first book of a trilogy, The Chronicles of the One. One of my sisters passed this book on to me.

The story begins in Scotland where Ross MacLeod, who now resides in NYC, visits the family farm in Dumfries, Scotland which has been in the family for over two hundred years. Ross goes for a walk on his land and changes the world when he shoots a pheasant that lands in a magic circle and activates an old blood sacrifice he accidentally contributed to fifty years earlier, simply by tripping and scraping a hand on a stone that sits in that ancient stone circle on the property. Ross is a bit freaked by the circling of crows above the site but he is no believer in magic. When he gets very ill he thinks it is a flu virus. Then he dies. Soon this untreatable and incurable disease, named the Doom, begins to spread as rapidly as people move around the globe these days.

The grief people feel is enormous. Max and Lana, newly in love and experimenting with some talents they seem to possess which indicate they might be witches, do not sense the enormity of the escalating depopulation right away. For a moment they are a spot of joy in a city that is being devastated by disease and looting and violence. Lana is a chef, Max a writer. Arlys, a newscaster on a popular NYC stations has been promoted to the main news desk by default. She offers daily news to anyone who is still listening. Fred is an intern who works with Arlys and who has a secret which might help explain her effervescent personality. One day Arlys is given reasons to tell her listeners the real news, which is far more frightening than what she is used to offering. Rachel is a doctor, Jonah an EMT. They are trying to run a hospital with fewer and fewer staff, and patients they are unable to save.

When these New Yorkers finally accept that they must leave their beloved city and travel to more rural areas we see them depart in pairs to look for more people who have survived the Doom. Why some people survive while others do not is something that has no satisfactory answer. Some survivors have found that they now have magical talents. Fred’s secret is that she is a faerie with wings and a sprightly spirit that makes her quite lovable. Max and Lana find that they have become more talented witches than they ever were before. Some people find they are elves. And yet some people like Rachel and Arlys have no discernible magical talents and yet they survive.

Getting out of New York is not an easy thing for anyone. It turns out that magical people, like normal people can use their talents for good or for evil. Many survivors have turned to evil and can harm magical people who strive to be good if they catch them off guard or if their talents are unequal. There are also the usual gangs that thrive on chaos. Traveling is scary and dangerous and there is more safety in numbers. Eventually all these New Yorkers meet, not quite by accident in a new community that is taking shape in New Hope, Virginia.

There is social commentary here. The Uncanny, as the magical humans are named, become “the other” and are feared by intolerant humans who cannot accept people with magical talents as neighbors. They taunt them and troll them and make sharing a community uncomfortable and sometimes worse things happen when the intolerants do more than use their words.

As soon as the internet is partially restored this message is posted:  “If you are reading this, you are one of the chosen. No doubt you have lost those dear to you and have felt, many still know, despair. No doubt you have witnessed firsthand the abominations that have desecrated the world Our Lord created. You may believe the End Times are upon us. But take heart! You are not alone! Have faith! Have courage! We who survived this demonic plague wrought by Satan’s Children face a Great Test. Only we can defend our world, our lives our very souls. Arm yourselves and join The Holy Crusade.” The Purity Warriors

The Purity Warriors pretend to save the world in the name of religion but they actually spread terror and violent rape and death, especially targeting the Uncanny. But Lana is carrying The One. Will she bear the child in safety to grow to her full powers? How will she change the sad equation in a ruined world? Good stuff for real, even if it seems to have a bit too much sugar on top.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, Parade

Find me on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – Book

Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, joins a spate of World War literature coming out of Great Britain. All these books talk about what British citizens who were not soldiers did during wars. People wanted to help with the war effort and since many of the adults who were still in British cities were women, the tasks women took on often affected them in ways similar to the way soldiers are affected. The end of the war found women who had done unlikely, dangerous and heroic things, having to assimilate their war time behavior into the person they would be moving forward in peacetime. Other recent novels include: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn which I have not read yet, Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce, and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.

Why is this the moment when so many writers were moved to write about such very similar experiences? Are people feeling an instability in political institutions these days that could lead to war? Are people rushing to offer us some patriotic roles that we could play? Is this a creative brain meld? Is this just an odd coincidence or nostalgic moment? With all the authoritarian figures rising in nations that once flirted with democracy does this feel somewhat similar to the rise of “you know who” before WWII? Are authors feeling the same fears we all feel that we may be called upon to defend our freedoms in the very near future, or to keep them alive for what could be decades of darkness?

Transcription is an absorbing book all on its own, but I recommend giving all these books a read because each takes a different tack on the same subject. In Transcription our heroine Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5 to help keep an eye on Hitler lovers and want-to-be Nazi’s living in England. British intelligence rents two adjacent apartments. In one a rather convincing Godfrey Toby, a spy of course, makes friends and collects important data about England’s defenses. These friends of Hitler think Gordon will pass this strategic data on to Germany. Of course this is simply a way for Britain to keep this information away from Germany and keep potential British traitors from doing real damage to the allied side in the war.

The second apartment is filled with recording equipment and a typewriter where a very young Juliet listens to what Gordon’s unwary informants reveal and then types a transcript that tries to give a word-by-word script of who is talking and what they reveal. Not all of the dialogue comes across clearly but Juliet does the best she can. Then Juliet is embroiled further into spying when she is asked to adopt a new persona and join a more upscale right wing group of traitors. This is how a girl who simply types gets deeply into something that is so unforgettable that she will never be free of either her memories or her handlers.

Do books make the future and the culture happen, do they predict what will come, or do they just reflect the present and the culture of the times in which they are written? It seems that books can do all of these things, and they can sometimes do all of them at one and the same time, which is probably one of the aspects of reading great books that keeps readers hooked. So what will turn out to be true of this little cluster of intellectual doppelgangers?

I am happy to read every book that Kate Atkinson writes and I feel the same way about Michael Ondaatje. I don’t know the other two authors as well but I may eventually be adding them to my long list of beloved authors. However, I would much prefer that these novels be reflective rather than predictive. You may find that you begin asking yourself how you would have performed under similar circumstances. One more point, possibly a #metoo point, although all of these books feature female characters, not one of them is a “chick” book. But because they all happen in the past, all these women work for men. However war seems to blur the lines between women’s work and men’s work as you will see. Don’t forget to spend a few moments thinking about why this book is called Transcription rather than Transcriptions. Thank you Kate.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, Running in Heels

Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva – Book

Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva is Book 12 in the Gabriel Allon series, the fictional, but famous spy for the Israeli Intelligence Service at the Office on King Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv Israel. Gabriel is an unusual person to be an assassin for justice, world peace, and the survival of Israel. He is an artist who gave up an artist’s life (his own) when recruited by Shamron, the aging hero of Israel, to pursue the terrorists who killed athletes from his beloved homeland at the Olympics in Munich.

Since that op he has trained with a talented art restorer and has become one of the best restorers of classic religious art in Europe. He is a bundle of contradictions but his strong values tie the whole package together. Gabriel’s family was, for the most part, killed in the Holocaust, except his mother who never really recovered from the horrors she experienced. Gabriel lost his first wife and his son to a car bomb, probably targeted towards Gabriel. Terrorists blew his life away right before his eyes. And even though they failed to kill the one the car bomb was designed to kill this became a sorrow he had to carry with him always. It hardened his heart in a more personal way and made him more lethal, more determined to fight evil in the world.

Through the first 11 books there have been plenty of evil actors to stop in their tracks, tracks which always are about either power and world domination or money or both. Eventually Gabriel remarried to the beautiful Chiara, daughter of a Rabbi, who also does intelligence work for the Office. Sometimes she is with him on ops and sometimes she stays home. Putting her at risk brings back old memories for Gabriel. After a while Allon is joined by a team, each person with different strengths and we become concerned about their safety in these rather impossible-seeming, risky, but usually successful operations they undertake. Gabriel is frequently wounded because he cannot let a villain get away. He retires every time he completes a mission as if he has beaten evil once and for all. But he knows this war is endless and he up-ends his life over and over again to do battle when he must. After a while we begin to wish there really was a Gabriel Allon and a Chiara, et al out there in the world, abolishing amorality and immorality.

So in Fallen Angel we have a lovely young woman who agrees to inventory antiquities in the Vatican collection who is found artistically dead after a fall from a balcony in the Sistine Chapel. At first her death is ruled a suicide. But Gabriel is a friend of the Vatican’s top two people, the Pope and his constant companion Father Donati, because he saved the Pope’s life and unraveled one of the plots that live in the competitive Vatican culture. Gabe is restoring a Caravaggio in some basement on the Vatican grounds and Donati has him summoned to tap into his expertise. Gabriel (also a fallen angel) does not believe this is a suicide. But when he pulls a couple of strings he opens a Pandora’s box of illegal trading in antiquities. These thieves never preserve provenance and this represents a huge loss of historical data about ancient sites and people. Once again what begins in Italy leads Gabriel all over the world and eventually home to Israel.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – You Tube

Find me on Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter – Book

We meet the Kurc (Kur-see) family in Rodam, Poland in 1939. Hitler is on the move and we know what is coming, but this close-knit family of middle class Jewish Poles does not. We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, covers familiar and dreaded ground, but this is a family of survivors. How did that happen?

Not one of these five siblings or their parents ended up at a concentration camp. They saw that Jews were being rounded up. They saw the railroad cars crammed with frightened humans supposedly going off to work in war factories. How is it that of the five (Addy, Halina, Bella, Genek, and Mila) and their parents only Mila ended up on such a train and she managed to escape a truly traumatic fate. They did not collaborate, they did not thrive; they worked almost to breaking in factories, subsisted on little food and sometimes no food. They often did not know where their other siblings were and they missed their family terribly, and worried about each other all the time.

The book skips between siblings and their spouses so we know where the Kurc’s are and how close they came to discovery and death, but they only learn this after the war when they all meet their son/brother Addy in Brazil. Georgia Hunter, the author, is Addy’s grandchild. He married a woman in Brazil who was from the American South. How did he get to Brazil?

Dumb luck and many delays, near capture, and the ability to anticipate and avoid being trapped helped Addy survive. He learned the name of a man who was supplying visas to Jews so they could leave Europe. He went to see this man and ended up on one of the last ships to Brazil. Even so all aboard the ship got rerouted to Casablanca and Addy almost ended up being caught there with an expired visa and sent back to Europe. This is just one of the family’s survival stories. The rest are just as compelling although told more as history than drama.

Georgia wrote a fictional story for the sake of flow and form and character development, but this is essentially a true story she researched for a decade, interviewing family, visiting museums and Holocaust data centers. Her family, whose stories she tells in We Were the Lucky Ones, may have only survived because they did not stay in one place and they were willing to learn new languages, buy papers that said they were Catholic, and because they were the recipients of favors from non-Jewish Europeans.

I don’t know why stories about WW II and the Holocaust keep falling into my hands, but this period in human history was a time when heroes and villains reigned. This was a time when what we learned about human nature was that we could succumb to a sickness of the spirit, to our most negative traits, envy, fear of others, national pride, genocide; or resist and become our better selves. Such books have special relevance in 2018 when we are in the midst of dealing with our fear of Muslims and “the others”, inclined to isolationism, and fomented to an exaggerated nationalism similar to what sent the German people so spectacularly and disgustingly awry in those WW II years.

Every time I read about WW II I learn something I did not know and feel things that I would not have felt otherwise. This may not be a perfect book; but it’s a very good debut and a great addition to the growing library of books about WW II for Jews in Europe.

Photo Credit: Books and a View

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva – Book

Europe is in an economic recession and it is flooded with refugees who cannot speak the language of their new nations and who have difficulty finding work that will pay enough to support their families, or even a single person. In this post 9/11 world refugees inhabit areas around Europe’s cities and some mosques are centers of religious radicalism where young men are recruited to terrorize the West. Portrait of a Spy(Gabriel Allon Series, Book 11) by Daniel Silva deals with an environment we recognize from our very recent past, a set of circumstances that could easily flare up again in the future.

Gabriel Allon, now a retired Israeli spy, leaves his cottage in Cornwall to visit Isherwood Studios in London, run by Julian Isherwood, friend of Gabriel and of Israel. Gabriel is a talented art restorer who often restores damaged paintings, sometimes for Isherwood. Gabriel’s wife Chiara is with him. As they are walking near Covent Garden Gabriel spots a suicide bomber. Bombs have been used in the past few days in Paris and in Copenhagen, and a bomb is about to detonate in Central London.

No one else identifies this man as a terrorist but Gabriel’s experiences set off warning signals. He even knows what time the bomber will trigger the detonator because it is timed to when a plane hit a target on 9/11. Gabriel is almost on time to stop the killing. Gabriel has his gun out to shoot the bomber when two London policemen arrest him. The bomber detonates. Gabriel’s guilt calls him back to duty as a spy. He even has a fair idea of who is running this group of terrorists. When he is vouched for by Graham Seymour, head of MI5 he joins forces with Adrian Carter of the CIA in Washington, DC and a cohort he has hunted down bad actors with on the world stage many times. Chiara is on board and eventually his team joins him in the new high tech national security center in DC.

The man Gabriel is seeking has been out of view for years and is believed dead. But Gabriel does not believe it. Word is that the terrorist group is running out of money which means these guys will go to ground for a while. Gabriel visits a young and wealthy Arab business woman he met when she was a young girl in the South of France (Book #6, The Messenger). Nadia al-Bakari was with her father (a wealthy funder of terrorists) when Gabriel killed him. She is also a philanthropist, helping especially Arab women. Nadia forgives Gabriel and agrees to buy a recently restored painting to create pool of invisible money that will go to tempt the terrorist and his group into the open.

As usual with Gabriel Allon spy thrillers the plan unfolds in great detail before we get to the actual op and the usually violent end game. Terrorists and other bad actors who stay hidden are well-guarded and very paranoid. They are hard to kill. Gabriel does not usually get off without injury. We always wonder what will happen to him this time. He also does not like to put others in danger, although he will do what he must to take out someone whose intent is to harm many. How do things turn out for Nadia?

It is Silva’s contention that Saudi Wahhabism has led to a good deal of the terrorism unleashed on Europe and America. He also feels that America’s supposed Allies, the Saudi’s, are responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the intended attack on Washington that shocked America and the world. And yet we remain tied to Saudi Arabia, probably for oil more than loyalty. A fiction author, such as Daniel Silva, writing a spy thriller like Portrait of a Spy, is freer than others to speak candidly about his world view and these spy thrillers always connect to events in the real world. This one upped my heart rate.

Equally bizarre, as I am writing this it is 9/11, seventeen years later, and they are reading the names of those killed in the attack on the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center on my TV news. A most strange coincidence.

Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce – Book

At first, when I began to listen to Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce, I thought I might be diving into a new Brigitte Jones style “chick lit” book. Since these books are a guilty pleasure of mine I was not unhappy about it. Emmeline Lake has a job at a law office (solicitor) but she wants to be a journalist. She has not taken any journalism courses but there is war in England and wars are often crucibles that enable those who are brave enough to do things without credentials. These fast lanes tend to disappear in peacetime. Emmy has a best friend she calls Bunty who grew up nearby and has been her friend for years. They share a small apartment in town on the third floor of a house belonging to Bunty’s parents. Bunty’s parents are no longer living but her grandmother is.

Bunty works in the War Office with secret documents and Emmeline works at the fire station several evenings a week taking emergency calls during the frequent bombing runs from Germany (it’s “the blitz”). Almost everyone who can does war work. When Emmy answers an ad that looks like it is for a “junior” at a prominent London newspaper she believes that this will be her entry into journalism. She shares her various unrealistic but highly idealistic fantasies on this theme with us. We are entertained.

The novel Pearce writes ends up being not nearly as superficial as it seems in the beginning. The job at the paper actually involves working with a woman who is a real character, actually an old battle axe, as we used to say. She comes from wealth but she is a country woman with lots of dogs and a gruff manner. She is involved in a number of charities and she is connected to important people who have known her all their lives. She’s never endearing but she is a force. Her name is Henrietta Bird and she answers letters in a column for women who need advice, in a news sheet style magazine called Women’s Helper. People address their letters to Dear Mrs. Bird.

The magazine is in decline as Mrs. Bird is not exactly modern and refuses to answer any problems that involve topics like sex, or affairs, or divorce, or even menopause “Buck up and get on with things,” is her usual advice favorite. When Emmy goes to work for Mrs. Bird deciding which letters Mrs. Bird will answer, she has difficulty ignoring the letters that seem to cry out for exactly the kinds of advice Mrs. Bird will not give. Emmy’s decisions relative to Mrs. Bird’s neglect end up bringing about a crisis for Emmeline that is quite adult. The war also hits far too close to home.

Although I found this book a bit young for me, I enjoyed it anyway. And the writing, although not terribly literary, never got in the way of the story. The author makes living in England, at the time when it was being bombed to rubble on every clear night, accessible to those who might like to flesh out their high school history lessons. Since I listened to the book I should note that the whole narrative was read in a particular British accent we Americans enjoy very much.