Ratcatcher: A John Purkiss Thriller by Tim Stevens

I love it when I stumble on the next great spy novel. This is one of those times. This was just a book I picked up for my Nook and I was riveted. I read the whole book in one sitting in one evening. I could barely tear myself away.

On the surface, the plot seems simple. Purkiss is assigned to go out and catch agents who have turned. In this case for the British Secret Service. He is chasing a man named Fallon and Purkiss has both a professional and a personal interest in getting him.

But what makes the book so great, is that this seemingly simple premise, is the jumping off point for a multi-layered plot with a lot of moving pieces. And instead of the usual chase through Berlin and Paris, all of the action takes place in the city of Tallinn in Estonia. I loved it.

The twists and turns were not predictable. The cast of characters were many so it was important to keep up and that is one reason I did not want to put it down. Right to the very end of the book things kept happening that were both intriguing and unexpected.

This is book one in a series. Oy vey!! I see sleepless nights in my future as I get the others in the series. For readers like me who love a good espionage/special ops/spymaster novel, do yourself a favor. But make sure you have the next day off so you can sleep in….and the other two novels to jump right into to keep the momentum going.

Carol (a.k.a. The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith

This is one of those books that is thought provoking. The first things one should consider about this book are actually contained in the afterword written by the author. This book was written in the 1950’s when being gay was still considered an illness and a depraved madness. People who identified as gay or realized they were, went to great lengths to hide that fact and their relationships were often difficult and required extreme personal sacrifices and choices that can not even be imagined in today’s environment of relative social tolerance.

With that being said, the story kicks off in the early 1950’s when Therese, a set designer working a casual holiday job at a department store, meets Carol Aird. Carol is n the process of getting a divorce and going through a custody battle over her daughter Rindy.

The book unfolds slowly from that jumping off point. This is not a book that jumps from one action point to the next. It is a character study and it unfolds very slowly and very gradually. I don’t want to give much away because it would detract from the reader’s opportunity to discover this for themselves.

I can say that I went through a range of feelings about the two characters and that there were some points in the story that I was feeling very pessimistic about them and other times when I was just plain annoyed by their behaviors and choices. I usually had to step back at that point and reset my mind to time and place.

For those who are unfamiliar with gay and lesbian history, this book is a little slice of life for what it was like for men and women during that period and for some of the prevailing attitudes and opinions towards people who identified as gay and lesbian.

I have not seen the movie. I definitely wanted to read the book first. I knew in the end that I would enjoy it because I absolutely LOVED “The Talented Mr. Ripley” also by Patricia Highsmith. A great read but approach this as a marathon, not a sprint. Although the book is not long, it is slow. It is meant to be savored rather than devoured.

Why in the World: Adventures in Geography by George J. Demko

The world changes so quickly that some of the information in this book is already outdated. That did not detract me at all from my enjoyment of this book. It is a fun, light introduction to the social, economic and political aspects of geography and its place in the world as well as the more traditional idea of geography as a physical map.

Of course, things change. Wars and conflicts make borders change and even countries change. The statistics are only as fresh as the last printing of the book. But it is still fun to read about how things evolve.

I am a list person so I liked all the charts and graphs. I can appreciate that while they might be out of date as of the books printing, they still provide a jumping off point to go and look up more current information and to see how some of the concepts and ideas have progressed (or even regressed) over time.

It is always fun to look at what was written in the past and see how they envisioned the future and compare how those speculations played out or didn’t. I think we have lost something in the education system by not including geography in the curricula. It is worth noting that other places in the world still offer geography as a major area of university study with options to pursue not only physical geography but economic and social geography.

The latter part of the book provides snapshots of countries all around the world. While some of it is now outdated, it is still informative as an historical piece and worth the investment of your time. This book was read as a light, pick up and put down book between novels and when I had some time to kill. It would be a little dry cover to cover but if you are a fact hound, it is a lot of fun.

Becoming the Beach Boys 1961-1963 by James B. Murphy

This is an interesting book but it is really geared toward the serious music aficionado and record collectors out there. It covers the Beach Boys from their likely inception in 1961 through 1963 when they started to garner their first real success on Capitol Records.

I read a particularly harsh criticism from someone who did not read the whole book but had a background of living in Redondo Beach and was quibbling with some of the facts as presented in the book. To this I would say that the author mentions straight up from the very beginning of the book that he did his best to get the details correct however there was a lot of confusion and quarrels even among the people involved about what happened on what date and where.

Look, we are talking about events that are now over 50 years ago. Two of the three Wilson brothers as well as their parents are deceased and due to Brian Wilson’s mental health issues, it’s possible that the details will be forever lost. I was not particularly cut up at the name of a wrong high school or auditorium name being used incorrectly but if that is the kind of detail that drives you mad, then simply don’t read the book.

However, if you are a serious audiophile, this author has gone to a great deal of time and trouble to locate acetates, original recordings and pressings from obscure labels in order to identify some of the earliest recordings and songs written by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in its earliest formation. There is a level of detail that true record collectors will appreciate if they want to find these obscure 45’s for their collections.

There is biographical information about the parents of the Wilson’s, The Love’s and The Jardine’s that give a little insight into how the members of the group came to have a love and appreciation for music. The biographical detail is not in depth reporting on family dynamics, psychological or social settings. It is focused solely on music and its place in the life of each member and how that evolved into the formation of the group.

I was expecting more of a biography but I stuck with the book to see where it was headed and found myself drawn into some of the details that are meaningful to the collector. But make no mistake, this book is very long on detail and presents conflicting accounts as they were given to the author by the players involved. With that in mind, there are times when the reader simply has to “pick a side” and decide to go with that version of events or reject an alternate version in favor of information they may have read from another source.

The indexing and end notes are expansive for those wanting to dig further or cross reference for their own work. For the average reader, three stars but for the serious record collector and audiophile, this is probably a five star effort.

Southern Bound by Stuart Jaffe

This was an interesting little book. It isn’t long and it will be a snack for quick readers and those who enjoy a lightweight mystery. I was mildly disappointed because I expected something different. The descriptor was that a noirish detective/ghost from the 1940’s era, inhabits his old office and assists a modern detective in solving mysteries that are occult in nature. Great premise right?

Well, in theory, yes. The occult mystery part of the story was o.k. There was enough mystery to keep you interested. There were some twists, some turns, some good old fashioned threats and a mysterious boss. There were henchmen. There were hermits with information. And then, for me, it jumped the shark.

First of all, the husband and wife love story was kind of dull. To spice it up, the author tried to throw in some sex. Some authors can manage to make it work but here, it felt forced and awkward. Then the real monkey wrench (spoiler alert here) the wife turns out to have the sixth sense and is able to see the ghosts that her husband thought only he could see. But she is psychic and becomes his offsider and assistant. Boo!!! Hated it.

This is the first in a series. I have read other reviews and some people really enjoyed that relationship and what it brought to the story. I haven’t yet found one of these supernatural mystery stories that has grabbed me and made me sit and go ooooh! I have more in my book queue so there is always hope.

I give this one a quick 2 stars. Its an airplane or beach read at best.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

This is a novel that readers need to be prepared to invest a considerable amount of time in because this is not a quick read. Although the book isn’t terribly long, it is heavy going and full of detail. Is there a pay off? Not in the traditional sense. More of a thought provoker than a wrap up in the end.

A young Muslim, of somewhat indeterminate origin is transported illegally to Germany. He hangs around the Hamburg railway station until he identifies a fellow Muslim, who happens to be Turkish, and follows him home.

He and his mother take in the illegal immigrant because of their beliefs in hospitality and the Koran, but not due to any militant factionism or inherent Islamism. The young man appears to understand some aspects of the Koran and Islam and not others which is puzzling to his hosts.

An attorney who works for a civil rights and human rights agency is contacted by the family. He has a letter of introduction to a private bank and a private account. He does not want to touch the money because it was deposited their by his father – a high ranking KGB member during the Cold War. The money is ostensibly blood money. The young man wishes the money to be distributed to organizations to assist Chechen’s who have been affected by Russian occupation.

But here lies the rub. Islamic organizations who do such work, also funnel money into terrorist activities. The banker who has inherited his father’s private bank, likewise inherits his fathers connections with the British and German secret services. The young attorney is also pulled into the affair.

And so begins the political, espionage and private machinations and interests that are at odds with one another. Each player – the accidental hosts, the banker, the attorney and the illegal immigrant become caught up in the much larger picture of the post 9/11 world: stop the funds, thus halting the spread of terrorism.

The end result is a series of moral quandaries that the reader must ponder. Is helping someone who appears to harbor no terroristic ambitions and who has been tortured for his beliefs and managed to escape, right or wrong? And further, what will happen to the hosts? Can one be labeled a terrorist for aiding someone by accident? What are the repercussions if the hosts are only on permanent resident visas to their host country?

What are the roles of private banks in holding and laundering blood money? What responsibilities do they have beyond acting as responsible stewards for the money with which they have been entrusted? What is the role they play between “old money” (in this case funds that have sat in cold storage for 50 or more years) and the transfer of that money back to areas from which it was misappropriated in the first place? How liable or not are bankers? What are their fiduciary trusts?

How far can a civil right attorney go? At what point do personal feelings and agendas start to cross and blur lines with professional responsibilities? Is that kind of work ultimately soul crushing as individuals get caught up in larger political and social agendas? How far can an individual go to help and when does it stop being aid and assistance and start to be aiding and abetting?

Then there are the macro pictures and agendas: politics, secret services, anti-terrorist organizations, intelligence services, police at all levels. Can they really identify what is a true agenda? Can they really stop the flow of funds without actually hurting people on the ground who need those funds to stay alive and to fight terrorism from their end of the pipeline?

As I said, this book raises more questions than it answers. However, it is a great jumping off point for book clubs who might like to use fiction to discuss these questions. Or for discussion groups on world affairs, to use fiction as a tool to open up a discussion about how the world works. Especially the post 9/11 world.

This is a four star read but if you want a neat, tidy bow on the end of the story – you will be gravely disappointed.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This is a great little Neil Gaiman book. If I was introducing Gaiman to a young reader – regardless of age – then this is one that I would steer them toward. It has all the elements one would expect from one of his novels: a little magic, some real world, a lot of good fantasy stuff and, well, a little stardust.

Tristran Thorn lives in one of those typical English villages that are often described: a pub, some shops, some farms and gap in the stone wall between the village and Faerie. No one passes through the gap except once a year when a fair is held. All manner of the wild and fantastic comes to town for the villagers to see and purchase.

Tristran is a bit of a mystery man himself having been left in a cradle with a note at the gap in the wall. When he is old enough, during his wooing of Victoria, he sets off to Faerie on an adventure to bring her back a fallen star.

All manner of adventures befall him in his hero quest. And it is a great hero quest which is important to making it a great fantasy read. The world of Faerie is exceptionally well described and it is easy for a reader to imagine exactly the ideas that the author is conveying. At one point in the story I remember thinking that it all reminded me somewhat of the adventures of Mr. Toad and the world of Toad Hall.

There are lots of happenings on the quest and I won’t go into them so that they don’t get spoilt for readers. I can tell you that there is a happily ever after but perhaps not one that readers will see coming. There were certainly a few twists toward the end that kept the ending just out of sight around the bend.

There are the usual collection of the good, the bad and the simply mad which is what most people want in a fantasy story. It is all there and told so well. The book is not long – quick readers will have devoured it in a day. Fortunately, for readers who are just discovering Neil Gaiman, there are lots of choices in his catalog so if you like this one, grab a few on your second go round the bookstore. And don’t forget to check out his graphic novel series “Sandman”.

I was introduced to Neil Gaiman by a great friend and fellow traveler and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Another 5 star read.