Tag Archives: espionage

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.

most-dang

I just found this title in my drafts and I can’t believe I didn’t write about it back when I had just finished it. It was in our YA section, but I think any person my age or a little older would like it as well, since it’s an in-depth look at events that happened when I was just too young to know what was going on, but certain words came up on the news over and over. I remember hearing nightly about Watergate and President Nixon and having no idea what was going on, and now it makes more sense.

The book begins by introducing us to Daniel Ellsberg and taking us through his military career and giving some background on the Vietnam War. Worth the price, right there – I had never quite understood how it all came about, and Sheinkin takes us (briefly) all the way back to the 1940s to give an idea of the events that led to the US involvement. We witness Ellsberg’s transformation from a military hotshot to a Pentagon consultant to a whistleblower who risks everything – and learn a great deal of American history in the process. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel with all of the intrigue and suspense, but has the added value of teaching history as well. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to know more about the 1960s and 1970s and how the counterculture movement was born.

Oh, and the audiobook reader does great famous person voices.

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

heart last

I got the new Margaret Atwood in prepub last August, and was delaying telling people about it because wasn’t out yet. But now it’s been out forever and I just forgot. Believe it or not, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped. I admit that I have ridiculously high hopes for Margaret Atwood after a lifetime of reading her books with worshipful fascination. But this one…I had previously read parts of it on Amazon (it was originally published as a series of Kindle shorts), and thought a longer, fleshed-out version it would be better than it  turned out to be. But don’t let this discourage you. Even a less than stellar Atwood is still Atwood, and the woman’s worth reading even at her worst (and I should know, I’ve read Life Before Man).

Charmaine and Stan are a married couple in a very near future North America (I’m not certain whether they are in Canada or the U.S.). The economy has gone so sour that they are living in their car, in constant danger of being murdered for their few possessions. Then Charmaine, who works in a bar where there are televisions, sees a commercial for a new planned community that is accepting applicants. She begs Stan to apply, and while he has serious concerns, he is desperate and they sign up. Their new home is based around a prison (Positron) and the community that supports the prison (Consilience). Residents are to spend one month living in a nice house in Consilience, working at jobs that support the prison, then report the following month to be the prisoners in Positron while their counterparts take their places (home and job) in Consilience. Then, they switch back the following month, and so on. 6 months a worker, 6 months a prisoner – all even and fair. It seems agreeable enough at first. Their house is clean and modern, their jobs are easy, and even being a prisoner isn’t bad for a month at a time. They are a little bored by the routine, and by the fact that they have no contact with anyone outside. Stan is particularly bothered by the fact that the TV shows and the music are cheesy, but he thinks Charmaine is happy, so he’s not complaining. But then Charmaine finds a note under the refrigerator – a sexy love note that causes her to become obsessively attracted to the man who lives in their house when they aren’t there. She leaves him a note back, an affair ensues…and then things get start getting progressively darker and darker.

All in all, I was certainly interested enough in the story, and it’s grimly funny enough to keep anyone going until the end (well, anyone who likes very dark comedy). I’m just sorry that it wasn’t more profound. Most Margaret Atwood novels keep me thinking for years afterward about Big Life Issues, but this one was more like a fun romp that I can look back on fondly but the details are already fuzzy.

Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera

Jacket

I listened to the first book of this series (Furies of Calderon) in my car. It was soooo loooooong I had to check it out twice to finish it, and I really didn’t get into it – until the last third of the book, where suddenly I began really caring what happened next. I think the problem was that it took me that long to figure out the world – the characters’ social positions, the political structure, the magic they use and how it works…it was complex and until I got it all straight, I was too confused to like it very much. But then I got to like the characters, and stuck it through to the end to see if they all made it through. I went through the second book in much the same way, but then the third grabbed me by the collar and forced me to read it in about 3 days. I had to get the actual print book because I couldn’t think of enough places to drive to listen to it. I read book 4 on my day off and started 5 yesterday (thank goodness for instant gratification ebooks) and between listening to it on my commute and reading it at home, I think I’ll need 6 (the last, alas!) by tomorrow. I would try to scale back and listen to them slowly to make them last, but it’s far, far too late for that. I must see this series through RIGHT NOW.

The basic premise: The land of Alera is loosely based on ancient Rome – the political system, naming conventions, and military strategies are all vaguely familiar (there are centurions, legionaires, etc.). But somewhere along the line, the Alerans allied themselves with “furies” – spirits of earth, air, water, and wood – to harness their natural powers. Generations later, the Alerans have sorted themselves into a pecking order with Lords (those who can command powerful furies of many types) to Citizens (who can control one or two types) to Freemen (who usually only command 1 fury) to slaves, who have little furycraft and are screwed. The story begins with Tavi, a 15-year-old orphaned boy who is a “freak” – he has no furycrafting abilities whatsoever. Despite his disability, he is extremely intelligent, and his dream is to go to the Academy and learn everything he can. He lives with his uncle and aunt on a small steadholt in the Calderon Valley, which is famous in Alera for being the site of the Marat invasion that killed the Princeps Gaius Septimus, leaving the current First Lord, Gaius Sextus, without an heir. We are also introduced to Amara, a cursor (spy) for the First Lord, who has been betrayed by a fellow cursor who is in cahoots with one of the High Lords to overthrow Gaius Sextus. She flees to the Calderon Valley, where…

Well, you can see where this is going. Aging leader with no heir, scheming lords who all want to be next in line for the throne, long animosity between the Alerans and the Marat… it’s a political field day and the battles are thick and fast and twisty. New enemies (the Cane, the Vord) and unexpected allies keep turning up in each book. The story shifts between the major characters’ perspectives – we see the story through Tavi sometimes, then throuigh Amara, then through Tavi’s aunt Isana, then later as other characters gain importance, the story shifts to them in turn.

Basically, this book is everything I hate in a fantasy –  lots of politics and a weird world that takes forever to understand, and it’s a patriarchal society to boot – but I have would up loving it. Maybe you will, too if you like epic battle stories like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, or if you share my love of brilliant protagonists who might just be insane but everyone follows them anyway. (Miles Vorkosigan, Scarlett O’Hara or Harry Dresden, anyone?) If nothing else, it’s well worth reading just to enjoy the character Kitai’s take on everything.

[I saved this post as a draft a while ago, and by now I’ve finished the series. I would be all sad but the first installment of Butcher’s latest series (The Cinder Spires series, starting with The Aeronaut’s Windlass) was released last week and I’m already on hold for it. Any day now!]