I've always been curious about the Cambridge five spy ring, and how and why it came about, but unfortunately this book did not provide me with many anI've always been curious about the Cambridge five spy ring, and how and why it came about, but unfortunately this book did not provide me with many answers. I learned what happened in terms of facts, and that the English upper-class is so fixated on class that it is blind to anything that contradicts the notion that the 'right people' do the 'right things.' But I still don't understand why Kim and his cohorts did what they did, other than, because times were tough in the 30s, they came to believe that capitalism was rotten and needed to be overthrown. Many other people went through that time without coming away with that conclusion and being willing to betray their friends and their country. The blind, almost sociopathic intensity with which Kim went forward with his mission makes me think there was something in his upbringing or his biology that explained his motivations, but except for alluding to the two sides of his personality, McIntyre appears clueless.
It seems that, this story having been told by many others, McIntyre took advantage of the relatively recent interview Nicholas Elliott gave to John LeCarre about his experiences during that time to sell the twist of "friendship" as a new slant on the events. But it's pretty thin soup....more
This was decent; readable, which other detective novels set in this era are not always (I put down the Alex Grecian one after the first chapter.) TheThis was decent; readable, which other detective novels set in this era are not always (I put down the Alex Grecian one after the first chapter.) The story kept me intrigued, the characters weren't bad, though Ellie, the prostitute with a heart of gold and an itch to educate herself is such a cliche it made me wince.
But my big problem with this novel, as with so many historicals written today, was the number of modern terms used in the dialogue, which really jerk me out of the moment. "Un-coordinated." "Psychotic." "Subconcious." "Okay." "Everything's fine." "Anxiety." "the come-on." I have never heard any of these terms used in actual Victorian novels, and I've read a lot of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, James, and Dreiser. This seems like such a small thing to think of and proof for I simply don't understand why more attention isn't paid to it.
If you want an example of a Victorian detective novel which feels very period and dialogue authentic, read "The Alienist". It is a little overwritten and overlong, but I never lost the feeling of being "in the moment."...more
An entertaining saga of old New York. Bought it for research purposes, but unlike Paradise Alley and Heyday, it kept me entertained even as I was learAn entertaining saga of old New York. Bought it for research purposes, but unlike Paradise Alley and Heyday, it kept me entertained even as I was learning....more
I read this book for research purposes (New York in the late 19th Century) and from that perspective it didn't disappoint. But it was surprisingly devI read this book for research purposes (New York in the late 19th Century) and from that perspective it didn't disappoint. But it was surprisingly devoid of character development or a plot arc.
Moth is a 12-year girl from the slums who is sold "into service" to a wealthy woman by her indigent mother. Obviously, ladies' maids were readily available, so one assumes -- correctly -- the buyer has ulterior motives, and so it proves, though her motives are sadistic rather than sexual.
Eventually Moth escapes, only to be taken in by a brothel owner who specializes in providing virgins to society men for a high price (the title of the book refers to the fact that sleeping with a virgin was superstitiously thought to cure syphilis.) Eventually Moth is befriended by one of the early female doctors of the era, and escapes the brothel, surviving by joining some sort of circus -- at this point I was so weary I didn't really focus on exactly what the setup was.
Moth is likeable enough, but she doesn't change or grow or do anything but escape poverty and degradation by joining this circus -- an option she had almost from the time she joined the brothel, but didn't chose to avail herself of because she was hoping the "snagging a rich older lover and living in luxury" thing would work out. When it turns out the rich older lover thing comes with a high price tag, she finally turns to her doctor friend for help and that's that. There's no climax (in view of the plot, I feel a little sheepish about using that term, but it is the classic one used for a turning point in the hero or heroine's journey) and the heroine learns nothing about herself.
The author writes well and says she was motivated by learning one of her ancestor's was an early female doctor who worked to cure poor women. But it feels as if she tried to pull a whole bunch of research about poverty and prostitution together to craft a novel, rather than starting with a character she felt powerfully drawn to and whose story she wanted to tell. ...more
**spoiler alert** Like many others, I could not wait to get my hands on the "Sea of Poppies" sequel, and was quite disappointed to meet up, not with t**spoiler alert** Like many others, I could not wait to get my hands on the "Sea of Poppies" sequel, and was quite disappointed to meet up, not with the familiar beloved characters of the first tome, but an almost entirely, and not as appealing, set. A couple of the characters from the first volume are present, but in very supporting roles. (I understand from the rumor mill that the original cast will be back in the third book, but perhaps that is only wishful thinking on the part of the fans.)
So, perhaps unfairly, I was disappointed. "Sea of Poppies" had so much movement and action, physical and emotional, that it swept me away. By contrast, "Smoke" takes place in one locale, Canton, and while the historical events (the lead up to the Opium war between the Chinese and the British) were interesting, it was a more static tale, with characters who were real but felt just slightly manufactured to illustrate the history and make moral points. I read it almost as non-fiction (wonder how accurate it actually is?) and enjoyed it, but it didn't have the same magic as Poppies.
And it was more depressing. It principally follows one opium trader, an Indian, who is caught between a newly conscious awareness of the evil his trade promotes, and a desire not to be ruined by doing the right thing. One feels compassion for him and his sad end is wrenching. But it is not uplifting stuff.
Don't get me wrong -- I find the topic of this trilogy fascinating, and don't recommend you skip Book II as it is an important part of the story. I own both Poppies and Smoke in hardback, and when Book III comes out it will join the other two on my shelves, something only reserved for favorites. Just be forewarned not to expect a reprise of Poppies. ...more
I read “The strangers child” for several reasons: it has a historical angle (the story starts in 1913), it takes place in England, it was long listedI read “The strangers child” for several reasons: it has a historical angle (the story starts in 1913), it takes place in England, it was long listed for the Booker prize, and the cover of the CD showed an alluring portrait of a man wearing a boater, his eyes enigmatically fuzzed out – a cover suggestive of mystery, that is reinforced by the ad copy on the back: “Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried--until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them…” What was not to be intrigued by? I thought. A kind of literary whodunit, all encased in the melancholy glamour of the upper classes pre-World War I – it sounded, well, divine, darling!
But the more I read, the more confused, exasperated, and frankly bored I became. The book starts in 1913, then jumps to 1927 or thereabouts, forwards to the 1960s and thence to the 1980s, with a small codicil in the present day, and putatively concerns some mystery swirling around a minor poet named Cecil Valance who died in the great war. But what the secrets consist of is never clear. It appears that Cecil, who was bisexual, might have fathered a child with his lover’s sister, but so what? This ‘lapse’ doesn’t clarify who Cecil was as a person, nor does it flesh out any of his contemporaries, who remain stubbornly bloodless. Meanwhile, the would-be biographer, Paul Bryant, spends untold hours interviewing every possible source in search of a coup, to little avail. We are treated to hours of chatter from peers to valets, dragged from baronial parlors to solemn crypts, and at the end feel little wiser than before. Perusing the reviews on Goodreads suggests that Hollingsworth was trying to get at the unreliability of memory; If so, it was a very long and tiresome slog to illustrate this minor nugget.
I also found it tiresome that every single character, just about, was overtly or secretly gay. Now I knew beforehand that Hollingsworth is gay and would probably write about gay characters, but somehow, the fact that in this multigenerational and crowded societal canvas there was barely a straight person seemed unrealistic. I am not a homophobe, I swear! It’s just that in a multi-generational saga you don’t usually leave out two-thirds of the population.
Finally, the writing. Everybody raves about Hollingsworth’s prose, and it’s true, he is poetic and facile and occasionally inspired; but I found it exasperating that he never met an adverb he didn’t like. I grew up on English books and am well aware that British authors are not fans of using one pithy verb when a qualified, even multi-qualified one, will do. But even I started getting tired of the avalanche of adverbs, which are crammed in as thickly as bibelots in Aunt Mathilda’s parlor.
Maybe it was a simple matter of expectations; I was expecting a mystery revolving around a tragic love affair (someone enlighten me about what this tragic love affair was, please!) and instead I got a painstakingly detailed series of conversations, cinema verite style, that were well rendered but ultimately felt unsatisfying. Lesson learned; talented writer writer, just not for me.
**spoiler alert** I enjoyed this book well enough, and thought the descriptions of the travails of a rich yet naïve American heiress who marries an En**spoiler alert** I enjoyed this book well enough, and thought the descriptions of the travails of a rich yet naïve American heiress who marries an English Duke were probably pretty accurate. The author clearly knows her English society, what's out, what's in, what's done, what's not. But Cora was a very frustrating character. At times she seems incredibly strong, smart and self-assured, and at other times she behaves so foolishly that you want to yell at her. She can't figure out that it's not the done thing for a woman of her social rank to sit for a painter with a reputation? She really unveils the painting at a party without vetting it first? The painter is a known philanderer/operator and she trusts him to do a straight-up portrait? And what about her husband's former mistress? There are clues galore that she is what she is, yet Cora chooses to make the woman her best friend, and persists in denying reality even after it slaps her in the face. So really, characterization was a big weakness of this book.
It read smoothly enough, and I was intrigued enough to keep going, but if you want a true rendition of the emotional and practical perils of being an American heiress, read "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James....more
While there was a fascinating wealth of micro-details about the social/political/emotional scene in Berlin in the years leading up to World War II, thWhile there was a fascinating wealth of micro-details about the social/political/emotional scene in Berlin in the years leading up to World War II, the book is weakened by the real life characters we have to follow in order to get those details. Ambassador Thomas Dodd is a man whose heart and mind are in the right place when it comes to Nazis (unlike his successor, a soul-less by-the-book diplomat)but he is ultimately ineffectual in his efforts to gain the ear of the American government, and we learn little about his inner life while he is trying to do so. His daughter Martha (his wife and son are completely cut out of the picture, which makes for a lopsided effect,like looking at a photograph where two out of the four sitters' faces have been blotted out) is, even by today's standards, promiscuous; and reading about her tumbles into bed with one man after the other (including Nazis) becomes wearisome. Many questions remain unanswered -- for instance, the family is purportedly close, so why did Dodd, who must have known Martha's goings on were the talk of the town, not try to inveigh with her? (If he did, there is no hint of it.) Did Boris, a diplomatic official of the USSR, and her supposed "big love" actually pursue her only for purposes of turning her into an agent? (Hinted at, but otherwise not addressed.) There was a nagging dissatisfaction for me at the end, a sense of not really having gotten to know these people, and of having too many loose ends in their lives left dangling....more
This was an adequately written book, but I had the same problem as when reading Philip Kerr, which is that the horrors of the Third Reich were so monuThis was an adequately written book, but I had the same problem as when reading Philip Kerr, which is that the horrors of the Third Reich were so monumental that it is difficult to get exercised about one murder being pursued by one detective when so much worse lurks in the background. I keep reading these pre-World War II mysteries set in Germany, hoping one will capture the truly unspeakable sense of evil of that time, but even though Cantrell has given it a valiant try, I don't think she quite nailed it. I understand Alan Furst and Ariana Franklin have given this era a try -- I'll investigate them next....more
There were times when I thought this would get 4 stars, but finally I felt that 3 was more honest. It's really 3 1/2, but that's not an option. I feltThere were times when I thought this would get 4 stars, but finally I felt that 3 was more honest. It's really 3 1/2, but that's not an option. I felt it was beautifully written (though perhaps at too great a length) and the sense of history I got from it was palpable. I truly felt that I had lived in Paris, Budapest etc. during the prewar and war years. But in the end it read more like a memoir/biography than a novel. There was very little inter emotional conflict–all the conflict really came from outward historical events, and the questions to be resolved were not ones dreamed up by the author but by real occurences. I remember reading Herman Wouk's “War and Remembrance” and being so caught up in the characters that by the time the hammerhead of the camps descended on them it was devastatingly personal. I didn't feel the same involvement.
Perhaps, possibly, as somebody pointed out in a review on Amazon, it was because most of the people were almost all so impossibly good that they became just a little boring. They just weren't nuanced enough. There was one supporting character, I believe his name was Joseph (not sure of the Hungarian spelling) who was quite spoiled, a wealthy jazz playing playboy artist who ended up in the Hungarian Army; in some ways I would've preferred to hear what his journey was like as he came face-to-face with unbearable realities.
But I truly did get a feeling for an era, the site sounds smells and history of the whole thing, and I'm glad I read it....more