Review of “A Legacy of Spies” by John le Carré

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

In a series of eight previous books, John le Carré created a world of spies who fought the Cold War with grit, determination, an occasional lapse of morals, and a genuine regret for those lapses. He also created a wonderful cast of characters, most especially George Smiley, but quite a few others who populate Britain’s “Circus,” the Directorate of Military Intelligence or MI6, analogous to the U.S. CIA. Le Carré’s ninth book in the series, A Legacy of Spies, is no disappointment.

Le Carré’s reputation was made with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. This latest book is something of a retelling of the earlier work, but from the point of view of Peter Guillam, Smiley’s faithful assistant. In fact, the second book is set several decades later than The Spy. The British government is being sued by the descendants of the agents who were sent to their deaths in the earlier book. Guillam is a reluctant witness to the events that are the basis of the lawsuit. Le Carré cleverly lets Guillam tell the reader what he says to attorneys for the plaintiffs and for the government, but he often does not tell the truth.

George Smiley appears only briefly, but his reputation and aura linger in the background throughout the story. Perhaps Smiley should not play too important a role because if the author were entirely consistent with his earlier works Smiley would be about 113 years old!

Evaluation: Le Carré is a master of English prose, and even though this is a spy novel, it is also excellent literature.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version, read by Tom Hollander, who does an excellent job of changing his voice, delivery, and accent as he assumes the roles of different characters.

Published unabridged on 7 compact discs (8 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Radio Publishing Group, 2007

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Kid Lit Review of “Red Cloud: A Lakota Story of War and Surrender” by S. D. Nelson

This biography serves as a companion book to Nelson’s previous biography, Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People. It is written in the imagined voice of Red Cloud, born in 1821, who was a member of the Oglala tribe – one of seven Lakota tribes, known by non-Natives as the Sioux.

Red Cloud’s people were warriors who had fought against other tribes to establish their homeland in the Black Hills. But then “strange people with pale skin came up the rivers into our country.” At first, the whites (called wasichus by the Lakota) just wanted to trade.

The traders were followed by throngs of whites headed to California in search of gold. They in turn were followed by the U.S. Army, sent west to protect settlers crossing Lakota lands. As the author writes in Red Cloud’s voice:

“It became clear to me and other Lakota that the wasichus planned to devour the land and conquer us.”

Nelson summarizes the conflicts between the U.S. Government and the Native Americans, many of which arose over deceitful manipulation and broken promises by the U.S. He reminds readers, inter alia, of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when the U.S. Army led a force of 700 against a sleeping Cheyenne village in Colorado and gunned down two hundred men, women, and children. He writes:

“Afterward, they went on to Denver in triumph, brandishing the scalps, severed fingers, and other body parts of the slain innocents.”

[Nelson omits details of rape and of the exact and gruesome nature of body parts gathered for “souvenirs.”]

Sand Creek served to unite the Plains Indians more than any other event. Many looked to Red Cloud as the war chief. He ordered a series of raids in an attempt “to push the intruders out of our country once and for all!”

The U.S. Army came back trying to negotiate another treaty, bringing gifts and whiskey, which seduced some of the Native Americans who signed the papers. But as with previous treaties “negotiated” in the same bad faith, “those leaders who signed did not represent the desire of all our people.” Red Cloud and the Oglala resolved to fight. Red Cloud was recorded as saying:

“The riches that we have in this world . . . we cannot take with us to the next world. I wish to know why commissioners are sent out to us who do nothing but rob us and get the riches of this world away from us?”

It was difficult, however, for the Native Americans to prevail over the might and resources of the U.S. Army, led in the West by William Tecumseh Sherman, who stated that Indians were “the enemies of our race and of our civilization,” and vowing in 1866 that “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.”

A significant battle on December 21, 1866 pitted the U.S. Army against 2,000 Native warriors. Eighty-one army soldiers died and the battle was considered a victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne. But Red Cloud knew that their triumphs would be few and far-between: they were outnumbered and outgunned. In addition, Sherman initiated a policy of killing off the buffalo to deprive Native Americans of food and clothing. Red Cloud saw it was time to surrender and accept rations from the U.S. Government, saying “We must think of the women and children and that it is very bad for them. So we must make peace.”

Red Cloud

A new treaty in 1868 granted the Black Hills to the Sioux (albeit inside a reservation), but of course, even that turned out to be temporary when whites discovered gold in the Black Hills. In 1876 U.S. Army General George Crook deposed Red Cloud and appointed a more conciliatory head chief and negotiator for the Lakota Sioux, and confiscated the Black Hills.

Red Cloud died in 1909 and is buried on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The illustrations, by the author, are done in ink and colored pencil in the style called Ledger Book Art. When Natives were forced onto reservations, the only paper they could get was in the form of bound ledger books no longer of use to the white man. The Plains Indians used the books to create the art they previously painted on buffalo robes, tipis, etc. The bound books of lined paper were turned into beautiful testimonials to Native life and memory.

There are also a number of reproductions of historical photos included in the book. Historical quotes are included periodically, offset from the text.

At the back of the book, there is an extensively annotated time line, Author’s Note, a select bibliography, and index.

Evaluation: This excellent combination of biography and history tells a riveting and tragic story. Such books as these can enhance the ability of young people to see the plight of others from different races and religions, and would make an invaluable addition to any classroom. (The intended audience is ages 8-12, but I myself found it to read like a page-turner.) Telling the story in the voice of Red Cloud helped add immediacy and emotional heft to the story.

The book also serves as a correction to the omission from contemporary history of the mass murders of Native Americans by the American Government.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017

Note: For more information about what happened to Native Americans that is also told in the form of ledger art, you may want to check out the stunning book The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman. (See my review, here, for a preview of what the book is about, and a look at some of the stunning artwork by Adam Cvijanovic.) The hand-calligraphed text purports to be a journal kept by Thomas Blue Eagle, a fictitious boy from the Sioux tribe who was sent to the Carlisle Indian School at the end of the 19th Century.

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Review of “The Girl in the Tower” by Katherine Arden

Note: Some spoilers for the first book in the series.

This is the second book in a trilogy that began with The Bear and the Nightingale, and which combines elements of a fairytale retelling, historical fiction, and fantasy. I read the first book a year ago, and had a hard time, when I began this one, remembering what was going on. The author provides some background sporadically, but basically I would advise that this not be read as a standalone.

The story is set in the mid-1300’s in Russia, or Rus’, as it was called then. The country had been Christian for five hundred years, but the populace, hedging their bets, still honored the gods of Russian folklore, paying tribute to the spirits of the household and the land by leaving regular offerings to them.

Vasilisa Petrovna, called Vasya, can see these spirits, as well as other fantastical beings, and she can hear voices no one else can. She is the granddaughter of a woman rumored to be the swan-maiden of fairy tales, and who also had these “gifts of sight.”

Vasya is free-spirited and fearless. She not only inherited her grandmother’s sight but her father’s kindness. She talks to the horses, takes care of the household spirits, and becomes beloved by all of them. But in the first book, she felt compelled to run away from her family to avoid an arranged marriage. In the process of trying to find her, both her father and stepmother were killed. Her own life was saved by Morozko, the Winter-King, or as he is also known, the Frost-Demon.

In this book, the relationship between Vasya and Morozko takes on new depth, as Morozko struggles with his feelings for Vasya. He knows that “you cannot love and be immortal,” so he literally faces a situation of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” In a nice use of metaphor, Morozko explains: “…every time I go near her, the bond tightens. What immortal ever knew what it was like to number his days? Yet I can feel the hours passing when she is near.”

Vasilisa the Beautiful from Russian fairy tales

Morozko wants Vasya to return to her family where she will be safer than traveling on her own. She tells him:

“You may tell me to go home, but I may choose not to. Do you think that is all I want, in all my life – a royal dowry, and a man to force his children into me? No, I am going on. I will see the world beyond this forest, and I will not count the cost.”

Morozko asks her at least to promise to wear always the sapphire her father gave her, no matter the circumstances. She does not know the significance of the jewel, other than the emotional attachment to it she feels because it came from her father. Morozko tells her it will offer her protection.

In other chapters, we follow what is happening with Vasya’s brother Sasha, now known as the monk Brother Aleksandr Persvet, or Aleksandr Lightbringer. He is acting as a counselor to his cousin and good friend Dmitrii Ivanovich, Grand Prince of Moscow. As this book begins, mysterious bandits have been burning villages and taking young girls as captives, leaving no trace of who they are or where they are headed. Sasha and Dmitrii are about to take armed forces to go see what is happening when they are approached by Kasyan Lutovich, a previously unknown-to-them boyar who also complains about the bandits, and asks for assistance in fighting them. Thus they all set out together.

After days of no success, the group takes refuge at Trinity Lavra, Sasha and Dmitrii’s old monastery, which is some 40 miles northeast of Moscow. To Sasha’s shock, Vasya shows up there, disguised as the boy Vasilii Petrovich, and bringing with her three little girls she rescued from the bandits. She is riding the magnificent and not-quite-human horse Solovey she got from Morozko. Sasha is forced, for Vasya’s own safety, to introduce her as his brother, all the while rueing the need to deceive Dmitrii. He takes Vasya to their sister Olga, hoping she can salvage the situation. Olga, heavily pregnant, is exasperated that she has been dragged into the deception, putting her and her family at risk. They are in danger as it is because, as Vasya discovers, one of Olga’s daughters, Marya, has, like Vasya, inherited sight, which could get her labeled as a witch.

Trinity Lavra Monastery today

Tension escalates as all of them discover who Kasyan really is, and the extent to which they all face death and the city of Moscow possible destruction. Their vulnerably is augmented because Vasya gave back the protective sapphire to Morozko. Up to the very end of the book, there is no guarantee of who will live and who will die.

Discussion: There is a great deal in this book about life in feudal Russia, especially with respect to the friction between religion and pagan traditions. There is also a lot about gender roles, and the resentment of females (at least those not co-opted by socialization) to getting assigned to roles of less moment and interest than those of males.

Morozko, the Russian winter demon who was seen as sometimes a force of good and sometimes of evil, in this book becomes an increasingly sympathetic character; in many ways, he is the best character of the second book. The only mystery is what draws him so much to Vasya. She, like many teen heroines it seems, is annoyingly bratty, stubborn, and disagreeable even though she is spirited, brave, and more devoted to justice for the people in her country than its rulers.

Morozko and Vasilisa from a 1964 Russian movie

Evaluation: The prose evokes the tone of fairy tales, and the historical aspects dovetail nicely with the plot and add a nice flavor to the story. There is a helpful glossary in the back of the book for Russian terms. I liked this second book better than the first.

Recommended for fans of fairy tales and historical fantasies.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Review of “Always and Forever, Lara Jean” by Jenny Han

Note: Some spoilers for the first two books in the series.

This book picks up immediately after the first and second books in the series, beginning with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and continuing with P.S. I Still Love You. While each of the books in the series “ends,” they aren’t really standalones.

Lara Jean, who was 16 when we first met her, is now turning 18, getting ready to graduate from high school, and thinking about college. She is still seeing Peter Kavinsky, who is incidentally becoming more and more perfect as the series progresses. But what will happen if they are separated at different colleges? Furthermore, with everyone graduating and leaving the area, Lara Jean, who hates change, just wants everything to stand still. Nevertheless, as she discovers on her senior class trip to New York City, a lot of what seems intimidating and scary just comes from imagining the worst. Or maybe being in love just makes all of life seem like “one big possibility.”

In some continuing themes, Lara Jean and her sisters Margot and Kitty will always be close (except when they aren’t), Lara Jean will always prefer to go to her hometown university, U. of Virginia in Charlottesville (except when she doesn’t get in), she will always be with Peter (except when she breaks up with him), and she will always love crafts and baking (about which she is the most consistent). Lara Jean also remains dependably impulsive, naive, good-hearted, optimistic, and sweet, in contrast to her older sister Margot, who is often moody and resentful, and her younger sister Kitty, who is spoiled and frequently bratty.

Most of the drama in this book centers on Lara Jean’s college plans, and how her relationship with Peter will fit into them. Peter got into UVA and she did not. [As a humorous aside on a meta level, Lara Jean lamented not getting into UVA by saying to Peter: “UVA’s a really competitive school. I’m not mad at them. I just wish I was going there.” My immediate thought was, well, perhaps if your grammar were better you might have gotten in….]

Lara Jean is also still profoundly influenced by the advice of her mother, who died years before. her mother had always told them, “Don’t be the girl who goes to college with a boyfriend.” Margot did take that advice, breaking up with her hometown beau before she left for college in Scotland.

Peter says “We’ll make it work. I’m not worried about us.” But Lara Jean is not so sure.

Then there is the question of sex with Peter: should she do it before they leave for college?

At the end of the book, there are some happy endings and some that are not so resolved. There have been big changes in Lara Jean’s family. But as she muses, “Families shrink and expand. All you can really do is be glad for it, glad for each other, for as long as you have each other.”

Whatever the future brings, we know that Lara Jean will always come out of any situation upbeat, finding the bright side, making the best of everything, and being “always and forever Lara Jean.”

Evaluation: This is an appealing and “happy” series that will be attractive to younger teens, with themes of first love, how to handle relationships, family dynamics, and the challenges of growing up, to which many readers will be able to relate.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster BFYR, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2017

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Review of “P.S. I Still Love You” by Jenny Han

Note: Some spoilers for the first book in the series.

This book picks up immediately after the first book in the series, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, as if it were just the next chapter. While each of the books in the series “ends,” they aren’t really standalones.

In the first book, we learn that Lara Jean Song Covey, 16, wrote secret love letters to every boy she has ever loved – five in all. She never sent those letters; rather, she kept them in a hat box her mother gave her before dying six years before. But the letters somehow got sent out, and two boys in particular have reacted to Lara Jean with interest after reading them.

One of them is Peter Kavinsky, a handsome boy in Lara Jean’s class in junior high. In the first book, Lara Jean and Peter got together as a couple, after some fits and starts. Everyone assumes they are having sex, especially after a video went viral of them together in a hot tub. But they were only kissing, albeit passionately. Lara Jean is not ready for sex, and thinks: “I decide that Peter and I will be the relationship equivalent of a brisket. Slow and low. We will heat up for each other over time.” Whenever she sees someone watching the hot tub video, she wants to scream at them: “We didn’t have sex! We are brisket!”

Meanwhile, Peter keeps hanging out with his former girlfriend Genevieve, telling Lara Jean he needs to comfort her because of a family problem she has that he can’t reveal. Genevieve used to be Lara Jean’s best friend, but no longer is. Since Peter started seeing Lara Jean, her relations with Genevieve are even worse. Lara Jean is hurt and angry about Peter and Genevieve, and feels like Peter isn’t over Genevieve. She tells him she deserves “to be someone’s number one girl.” He claims she is, but she doesn’t believe him, and breaks up with him. She starts seeing another boy who received one of her letters, John Ambrose McClaren.

John likes Lara Jean a lot, but she finds she cannot get over Peter as a boyfriend, or even Genevieve as a friend.

She muses:

“There’s a Korean word my grandma taught me. It’s called jung. It’s the connection between two people that can’t be severed, even when love turns to hate. You still have those old feelings for them; you can’t ever completely shake them loose of you; you will always have tenderness in your heart for them. I think this must be some part of what I feel for Genevieve. Jung is why I can’t hate her. We’re tied. And Jung is why Peter can’t let her go. They’re tied too.”

She even asked Genevieve if they could be friends again, but Genevieve just scornfully told her to grow up. Lara Jean realizes that “People come in and out of your life. For a time they are your world; they are everything. And then one day they’re not. There’s no telling how long you will have them near.”

It’s obvious Lara Jean and Peter need to be honest with one another, and Lara Jean needs to decide between Peter and John.

Evaluation: I am warming up to Lara Jean, even though it’s certainly true, as both Peter and Genevieve told her, that she needs to grow up. But she’s endearing and good-hearted. Her problems are also more “sweet” than “dire,” a nice change from so many contemporary young adult books.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster BFYR, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2015

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