Review of “Agent Running in the Field” by John le Carré

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

John le Carré’s latest novel, Agent Running in the Field, realistically and informatively describes spy tradecraft like only an experienced insider can. [During the 1950s and 1960s, le Carré worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).] Nat, the narrator and protagonist, is a middle age British spy who believes he is about to be declared “redundant” by his employer, the British Secret Service. Although he is probably in his late 40s, he is very fit; in fact, he is the champion badminton player at the tony Athleticus Club. But he is rather old for an active agent, and more importantly, doesn’t take well to authority. The Secret Service does not fire Nat, but it gives him a rather dead-end assignment reporting to a man he detests.

One day, a young American named Ed comes into Nat’s fancy club and challenges him to a badminton match. The two are pretty evenly matched, and after some time, Nat and Ed become fast friends, usually sharing a pint or two after each match. Ed is very vocal about his politics: he thinks Brexit is a disaster for Britain and he hates Trump. One can almost, but not quite, hear the author opining through Ed. Nat is very reserved about expressing his opinions and never discloses his profession – after all, he is a spy. Ed’s affection for Nat becomes so intense that he eventually asks Nat to be the best man at his wedding.

Things get very complicated when Nat’s unit discovers a Russian agent is actively attempting to recruit a British resident to disclose the details of a very secret [so secret that Nat is not even informed of its nature] project involving the U.K. and the U.S.A. Complications proliferate when Nat discovers that the Russians’ target is none other than his friend Ed. The British spy service then tasks Nat with the job of turning Ed into a double agent.

This in fact has been Nat’s specialty over his career: “agent running” – that is, cultivating a source to work for the British Secret Service. It is a long game, requiring patience and a willingness to privilege strategy and tactics over relationships, much like badminton.

Le Carré describes Ed as very moral, but quite naive, and Nat sees him in just that light. Nat knows that Ed’s motives are pure even if his actions may run counter to British interests. Nat is conflicted between his professional duty and personal friendship. Ed is facing substantial prison time if he does not agree to work with the British. His only way of avoiding the Hobson’s choice of prison or double agency is to leave the country, a difficult if not impossible task now that the British have an eye on him.

At this point, Le Carré’s (and Nat’s) knowledge of spy tradecraft takes over and provides a satisfying if not thoroughly happy denouement.

The story is somewhat more complicated than I can do justice to in a short review. Le Carré’s prose is limpid; he is able to carry the action along largely by dialog.

Evaluation: Le Carré may be 88, but he hasn’t lost his touch. I was thoroughly engrossed in this story.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Viking, 2019

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to an audio book read by the author, who could have been a professional reader. His voice is always clear, and he does a superb job of changing voices and accents to fit the putative speaker.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (approximately 9 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2019

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Review of “The Fountains of Silence” by Ruta Sepetys

This work of historical fiction is set in Spain in 1957, when dictator Francisco Franco, abetted by the most conservative factions of the Catholic Church, held an iron grip over that country. Most areas of Spain were patrolled by the Guardia Civil, a military police that functioned as an important means of social control over civilians. Republican sympathizers, i.e., those against Franco or in favor of more liberal policies, were considered enemies of the state and were imprisoned or killed. Their children were taken to be raised in “proper” homes. Between 1939 and the late 1980s, as Sepetys reports, over 300,000 babies were stolen from their birth mothers (often by authorities insisting the babies had died in childbirth) and sold into adoption. Parents who believed their children weren’t really dead were too intimidated to report their suspicions. A veil of silence over abuses and outrages descended upon the country.

Sepetys’s story focuses on young adults, who inherited the “heartache and responsibility for events they had no role in causing.” She writes that these youths became “fountains of silence.”

Relevant snippets of actual historical documents are replicated by the author at the beginning of each chapter.

Several teens dominate the story. Nick Van Dorn is the son of the U.S. Public Affairs Officer in Madrid. Daniel Matheson, a Texan, is in Madrid with his parents; his father is an oil tycoon in search of a deal with Franco. (Franco needed money, and decided to open up his country to outside trade; suddenly there was a lot of money to be made for enterprising Americans.)

Daniel’s mother was born in Spain, but raised in Texas. Dan was brought up speaking the language, and was able to navigate his way around Madrid better than most Americans. Still, there was much he didn’t understand, a product both of his own naivety and of the unwillingness of the Spaniards to reveal the truth about either their past or present.

A group of Spanish teens also share narration with the Americans. Ana Torres Moreno works as a maid at the Hilton Castellana, built four years earlier to cater to the Americans flowing into Madrid for business and tourism. She and Dan are attracted to one another, but they live different existences in different worlds.

1950s Postcard of the Hilton Castellana in Madrid

Ana’s brother Rafa has two jobs, one at the slaughterhouse one at the cemetery. Even with all the hours he puts in, he barely makes enough to survive. When he was not working, he helped his close friend Fuga train to be a matador. Ana and Rafa’s older sister Julia helped Fuga too – Julia was an expert seamstress in the specialized field of creating matador costumes.

Ana’s cousin Puri also shares the narration. She assists at a local orphanage where what she sees challenges her faith and her sanity. What happens when everyone you trust is telling you not to believe your own eyes, and when they insist that obedience to those in power is more important than truth?

All of the characters battle their own personal challenges as they strain against the tight strictures of family, faith, and the punitive Spanish society. They are trying to realize their dreams, but also to stay alive in the process.

Evaluation: Sepetys does a good job bringing this era of history to life for young adults, with each character facing challenges and desires for the most part common to teens in any time period. It doesn’t always make sense that the dialogue – assumed to be in Spanish – is sometimes peppered with Spanish phrases, but this is a frequent narrative device in stories featuring speakers of a foreign language. In any event, there is certainly no harm in the author’s desire to educate her readers about common foreign expressions.

As in other books by Sepetys, one is able to locate bright spots of hope underneath the awful load of tragic circumstances.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2019

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Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “What Miss Mitchell Saw” by Hayley Barrett

Maria (pronounced ma – RYE – ah) Mitchell was born in 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts to a Quaker family. Her father, a teacher and amateur astronomer, showed Maria how to use a telescope and to sweep the sky as carefully as she would sweep a room. The author quotes Maria’s father as advising her:

“Thee must wonder. Thee must watch closely. Then will thee see and know for thyself.”

Maria’s father also taught her to use other instruments, including the sextants and chronometers whalers used to help them steer their ships off the Nantucket shores.

Maria became a teacher, like her father, and a librarian, like her mother. She used the quiet time at the library to study advanced mathematics and celestial navigation. At night, she continued to sweep the stars.

One evening, she found a comet, and she and her father rushed to publish the news; the King of Denmark had pledged a gold medal to any astronomer who discovered a new comet with a telescope.

Maria, only 29, made the historic observation in 1847, and won the medal. It bore the motto: “Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars.” (These were the dying words of the great astronomer Tycho Brahe). The author concludes: “Miss Mitchell saw a comet. The world saw her.”

End matter includes more information about Maria Mitchell, such as the fact that she was the first woman astronomer employed by the U.S. government, the first professor hired at the newly founded Vassar College (though she had no college education of her own), the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Women.

The author also notes that Maria was active in campaigning for both women’s rights and for abolition. She even refused to wear clothes made out of Southern cotton. She became quite well-known, and entertained prominent activists in her home, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.

Maria died in June 28, 1889 at the age of 70. An organization, the Maria Mitchell Association, was established in Nantucket to honor Mitchell’s work and to promote the sciences. It also operates an observatory named in her honor.

Illustrator Diana Sudyka uses gouache, watercolor, and ink to depict Maria’s world as one filled with both the ocean swirls off the coast of Nantucket and the stars and planets in the night sky overhead. (This connection is a reflected in the text as well: “She marveled at the celestial phenomena that arched overhead like a whale’s sparkling splash.”) A variety of fonts help emphasize what was important to Maria.

Evaluation: This welcome addition to picture book accounts of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) should have great appeal to its intended audience of 5-8 years. I especially loved the way Maria’s clothes are shown as sparkly and full of stars, which might convince girls fond of glitter and princesses that scientific endeavors are worth their consideration.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2019

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Review of “Oona Out of Order” by Margarita Montimore

This unique story begins on New Year’s Eve in 1982, when Oona Lockhart is about to turn nineteen. She is agonizing over whether to stay with her boyfriend Dale’s band, or go with her best friend to London to continue her education. Her angst is about to get worse, however, because at the stroke of midnight she experiences tremors and passes out, only to wake up in 2015. An unfamiliar male, who turns out to be her personal assistant Kenzie, tells her that whereas she may be nineteen on the inside, she is now fifty-one on the outside. Every year on New Year’s Eve, she jumps in time – seemingly randomly – to a different age of her life. Kenzie explains, “You’ve never been able to figure out how it happens or why.” Only Kenzie and her mother Madeleine know her secret.

In subsequent chapters we experience different times and ages along with Present Oona, who starts leaving herself notes at the end of each year, hoping she can make a difference in Past Oona’s life. The only way she is successful in changing events, however, is in giving Past Oona stock tips so Future Oona will have financial security. Otherwise, she found that “whichever way the years flowed, it was impossible to outmaneuver their passage.” She needed to learn how to accept the bad stuff she came to know would happen, and enjoy the moment.

Evaluation: Oona is a fascinating character, who has to grow up on the inside much more quickly than other people, and learn how to handle events and relationships she knows will change later. Reading about her progress in dealing with her odd fate held my interest throughout the story. I didn’t like Oona much, but there’s no denying the author kept my attention.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Flatiron Books, 2020

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Review of “Things in Jars: A Novel” by Jess Kidd

To my surprise, I loved this creepy, macabre Gothic novel set in Victorian London. Actually, it was not a surprise; having read the author’s previous books, I had high expectations. Like the best Irish stories, this one is a collection of outsized characters both living and dead, outrageous escapades, creatures from Irish mythology, seemingly unendurable tragedy, and boundless, eternal love.

The main character is Bridie (short for Bridget) Devine, around 30 years old, who is a doughty and eccentric Irish lass living with her seven-foot tall housemaid Cora and working as a detective for hire. Bridie has a talent for the reading of corpses, and thus Scotland Yard passes her the odd case. She has two suitors: one living and one dead. Inspector Valentine Rose of Scotland Yard has the advantage of being alive, but her dead suitor, Ruby Doyle, a former boxer, has a hold on her heart. Alas, they can’t even embrace.

As the story begins, Bridie is hired to help find the kidnapped daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick. Christabel, age six, was taken from her nursery, and Sir Edmund sent his physician, Dr. Harbin, to hire Bridie to help find her. Dr. Harbin won’t tell Bridie much about Christabel except that “the child has singular traits” which he won’t enumerate.

As Bridie goes about her investigation, she is aided by both Cora and by Ruby, whom she first encounters resting against a tombstone smoking a pipe. He is transparent, but handsome, and claims he and Bridie know each other. He shows her his headstone: “Here lies Ruby Doyle, Tattooed Seafarer and Champion Boxer.” He had been dead half a year, killed in a bar brawl. But Bridie’s memory won’t be jogged. Regardless, he begins to accompany her and provide companionship to her, and they grow close.

The author’s colorful descriptions of the sights and smells of Victorian London are a wonder. Humorously, she includes both Bridie’s contemptuous perspective and Ruby’s laudatory one. Bridie is usually proclaiming disgust over the unpleasant odors in the street, from the sweat of unwashed workers to the reek of the polluted Thames River. But Ruby, who can no longer smell anything in any event, is nostalgic for all of it, as expressed in this passage:

“The street is hopping: the living swarm before Ruby’s dead eyes – street peddlers doing the go-around with trays of oranges and nuts; street performers limbering; kitchen maids sallying forth with market baskets, eyeing the ribbon vendors and eluding the coalmen. Tribes of pickpockets, fleet-footed miscreants, thread through the traffic. Here trots a dapper wag, high collar, and resplendent whiskers. There steps a blue-eyed beauty in a fetching bonnet. Ruby wishes himself a frock coat and new top hat, a hot shave and a good breakfast, a scarlet cravat, a pair of kid gloves, and a pocket watch. He would give the world just to saunter out onto the streets as a living man again, to look and be looked at.”

As they walk through the streets together, Bridie envisions what it would be like to grow old with Ruby and their “rabble of dark-eyed children.” For his part, Ruby conjures up an image of “their raucous children, green eyed, please God.” Both fantasize about physical contact, and both get watery eyes over their fruitless imaginings. It could break your heart in two.

Meanwhile, Bridie picks up clues as to Cristabel’s whereabouts. The net of suspects widens, and the story goes back and forth in time to flesh out their backgrounds as well as that of Bridie. We also learn about the Resurrectionists, who play a supporting role in the story. These were gravediggers commonly employed by anatomists in the United Kingdom during the 18th and 19th centuries to exhume the bodies of the recently dead for research. Most impressively, the author includes a riff between two prison guards that mirrors the similar scene of comic relief by the gravediggers in Hamlet, Act V. It is doubly pleasurable for any who catch the reference.

All of the cruelness and horror depicted by the author is juxtaposed by the tenderness and humanity of Bridie and the other “good” characters. It is a truly masterful symphony of impressions and emotions, and the language is so evocative you may think you are watching a movie rather than reading a book. I particularly liked her description of apothecaries, showing both the beauty and the humor of her writing:

“[Apothecaries were] gatekeepers to an esoteric world of unguents and potions and powders. They sold opiate dreams for fractious babies to exhausted mothers, or ointments to unfaithful husbands with the itch. They poisoned and cured in equal measure and everything they dispensed came with a good old-fashioned bracing purgative.”

Evaluation: Jess Kidd is an excellent writer, and for those who enjoy good literature with an Irish flavor and a page-turning plot, this book will not disappoint. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Atria Books, 2020

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