Widely regarded as one of the best spy writers alive, Robert Littell is often compared to John LeCarre and Alan Furst. In his new novel Young Philby, readers are treated to an absorbing fictional biography of the notorious double agent. Anyone interested in spies and Cold War history will certainly know the name Hadrian Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern espionage. He was a high ranking British double agent and one of the members of the infamous Cambridge Three. While spying for the Russians, Philby managed to have a successful career in both the British and American intelligence agencies. He caused incalculable damage with the secrets he shared.
Littell explores Kim Philby’s life story as a young man, including his early attraction to communism. Littell also tells of the Soviets tapping Philby, and details the methods they used to make him look attractive to the British Secret Service. Littell’s narrative is particularly compelling because he tells his subject’s story through the lens of a various people who knew him throughout his life. We get to know “Philby the man” through his lovers and his father, and “Philby the spy” through the eyes of his Soviet handlers. But even with the distinctly different views into this notorious spy, Kim Philby remains an enigma. As with Littell’s other novels, Young Philby manages to be both a well-researched historical novel as well as a riveting read.
Pete Townshend’s biography, Who I Am is not only the story of The Who but also a deeply personal memoir. Townshend shares intimate details from his sometimes bleak early childhood, revealing that these years caused him lifelong fears of abandonment. Who I Am also gives a personal view into cultural and historical developments in post-World War II England.
Compared to other rock memoirs, Townshend’s stands out for his lack of bitterness toward other members of The Who. He resists the temptation to disparage his bandmates. Given The Who’s colorful history, no doubt he has countless stories that would entertain readers but may embarrass fellow band members. Because this is such a well-crafted and honest memoir, the absence of descriptions of debauchery is not missed. Readers who prefer their musical biographies to be full of name-dropping gossip will not be disappointed, though. He shares numerous stories about Sixties icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Mick Jagger.
Who I Am will be enjoyed by fans of The Who and also readers who are interested in intimate memoirs of artists. Read by Townshend in his distinctly reedy London voice, the audiobook is highly recommended.
Grab a coffee and croissant and settle in with The Bookseller, Mark Pryor’s debut novel and the first book in a promising new series. Pryor has written a fascinating story featuring intelligence officer Hugo Marston. Marston works for the United States Embassy and is lucky enough to live in Paris, where he seems to thrive in the “City of Lights.” Although American, he clearly relishes in the daily habits of the French. He enjoys coffee or wine in outdoor cafes and buys his books from the sidewalk bouqinistes (or booksellers).
Marston’s idyllic life in Paris is suspended when he witnesses Max, his favorite bookseller, being kidnapped at gunpoint. Marston sets off on a hunt to find Max. Through his investigation, he discovers that Max is much more than a humble bookseller. Max is a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a Nazi hunter and has tracked down some of the war’s most notorious criminals. Max’s background is just one of many surprises that Hugo encounters. As he gets further into his search, he uncovers corruption and dark secrets from France’s past.
Pryor clearly has a passion for Paris. He brings the city to life, giving readers a tangible sense of daily life in the city. His atmospheric prose transports the reader directly to the streets of the city. The Bookseller is highly recommended fans of John le Carré or Alan Furst.
Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story by Wyclef Jean is both the biography of Jean and the life story of the Fugees, one of the most successful hip-hop & R&B bands of the 1990s. Originally from Haiti, Jean is the son of a pastor and the grandson of a Voodoo priest. In this revealing new memoir, Jean recounts his early life – from his early years in the LaSerre slum to international superstardom in the 1990s. And finally, he describes his humanitarian work in Haiti and his unsuccessful bid for Haiti’s presidency.
After his early childhood in Haiti, he joined his parents in New York, where he was raised by his no-nonsense grandmother, the family matriarch. It took quite some time to get accustomed to his new life in America. He grew up in tough neighborhoods, often ravaged by drugs and guns. He also faced anti-Haitian prejudice throughout his youth in New York. Jean grew up in a very musical (and religious) household. He refers to his family as the “Haitian-American Partridge Family.” Because his father would not allow him to play secular music, his first band was a Christian rock group. He immersed himself in classic funk and rock songs and modified the lyrics so that the resulting song was a Christian one. Once he finally embraced secular music, there was no looking back. As one of the founding members of the Fugees and successful solo artist, Jean has sold millions of records. Perhaps the most compelling section of the book is the story of the Fugees and the recording of their mega-hit, The Score.
He says The Score is essentially the soundtrack of his relationship with Lauryn Hill. Although the relationship ended badly, it became an all-consuming affair that inspired the beautiful, soulful songs on The Score. After the Fugees broke up, Jean set out on his successful solo career, almost ran for the President of Haiti and is now focused on his family and music. Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story is highly recommended to biography readers. but also anyone interested in the history of hip-hop.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen is a fascinating look into the world of infectious diseases, specifically those that travel from animals to humans, otherwise known as zoonosis or spillover. Humankind is all too familiar with zoonoses in the form of influenza, Ebola, SARS and AIDS. In order to get a sense of the scope of interspecies diseases, keep in mind that about 60% of all infectious disease cross between animals and humans. According to Quammen’s research, zoonosis has killed 30 million people since 1981. To investigate spillover viruses, he travels all over the world with virus hunters. He describes multiple mysterious outbreaks of disease, coming from a wide range of animals such as bats, gorillas and pigs. Quammen believes the next major pandemic will come from a nonhuman animal virus that will infect and spread into the human population.
David Quammen is a terrific science writer and he knows how to tell a good story. He is excited about his subject and takes a warm, personal approach with his readers. He makes this very complicated and frightening subject accessible and easy to understand. Spillover is thoroughly researched, includes an extensive bibliography and is chock-full of fascinating, engaging material. Although Quammen takes issue with Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, readers who enjoyed Hot Zone will love Spillover.
Baltimore author Dan Fesperman has written a tribute to classic spy novels - in the form of another spy novel. For espionage aficionados, Double Game is a dream book because Fesperman ingeniously scatters clues from classic spy thrillers throughout his riveting new book.
Reporter Bill Cage has been obsessed with spy novels since he was a boy. His father, a Foreign Service officer, introduced him to masters such as John Le Carre, Len Deighton, and Graham Greene. It is former spook and novelist Edwin Lemaster, however, who has the most impact on Cage, and the fictionalized Lemaster is the center of Double Game.
As a young journalist, Cage gets the interview of a lifetime with his idol, Lemaster. Unfortunately, in an attempt to please his new bosses, he ends up betraying the author. Fast forward many years later: Lemaster returns to Cage’s life in a most unexpected way. Cage begins to receive anonymous messages suggesting that the great Lemaster may have a dangerous past. These messages set Cage off on a chase that will reveal dark secrets from his own background.
Double Game stands on its own as a suspenseful, fast-paced spy story but much of its appeal is Fesperman’s homage to the genre itself. In referencing many of the very best spy novels, readers will want to search out classics they have overlooked and re-read old favorites.
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot is a deeply researched, fascinating cultural history of one of our most unique cities, San Francisco. Talbot focuses on the city’s slide toward the dark disillusionment of the 1970s and the devastating AIDS years of the 1980s. The founder of Salon magazine, Talbot knows how to tell a great story, offering fascinating glimpses into the lives several SF notables, including Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Harvey Milk. Talbot rounds out his history with San Francisco’s redemption, as the City by the Bay transformed itself into one of the most innovative urban centers in America.
This epicenter of “flower power” took a more ominous turn toward the end of the 1960s. Harder drugs like heroin became more prominent. City government was less effective. Crime was rampant. Talbot illuminates the dark underbelly of the city during the 1970s and 80s. He writes of its overall dangerous quality during this time. He also highlights several major San Francisco crime stories that transfixed the nation, such as Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, Harvey Milk, Jim Jones and the Zebra Murders.
Still reeling from the difficult 1970s, San Francisco was then ravaged by the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. Talbot reminds us of those dark years when San Francisco virtually became a ghost town, a time when it seemed like everyone knew someone (or many people) who had died of AIDS. Coming out of these harrowing years, San Francisco emerged to be one of the most vibrant, progressive cities in the country. Talbot does an outstanding job of describing San Francisco’s lowest years in modern history and then tracing this city’s path to greatness.
Get out your bell bottoms, glitter, and eyeliner and celebrate the music of the 1970s. Delve into the exploits of three rock gods in new biographies, just published in July. It doesn’t get much more fascinating than the life stories of Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by rock journalist Lesley Ann Jones attempts to reveal the real Freddie Mercury. Jones traces his fascinating journey from a young boy raised in India and Zanzibar to the lead singer of Queen, one of the most successful super-groups of the 1970s. Jones depicts Mercury’s childhood, his rise to fame, and his friendship with Elton John. Jones traces Queen’s trajectory into super-group status, complete with the usual stories of rock and roll debauchery.
The one and only Ziggy Stardust is the subject of Peter Doggett’s new biography, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s. Doggett chooses to write about Bowie’s most influential decade. He begins his analysis with “Space Oddity” from 1969 and rounds out the book, covering Bowie’s 1980 LP, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). A rock journalist and critic for decades, Doggett is considered to be one of the few writers who could pull off an effective, insightful look at Bowie’s impact on music and popular culture. Indeed, this new biography has already garnered positive reviews. Library Journal calls it “a complete treat.” Rob Fitzpatrick from London’s Sunday Times says the book is “astonishing and absorbing.”
Few bands are as influential and long lasting as The Rolling Stones. Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jagger is a candid “tell-all” of the flamboyant front man. Based on interviews with friends, family members and other musicians, Mick is gossipy and salacious. This one is for readers who are interested in Jagger’s sexual exploits, drug use, and opinions on everything from Lady Gaga to Kanye West.
Ben Fountain’s new book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a deeply personal novel about one young man’s experience as a soldier in Iraq and his subsequent visit home in which he tries to make sense of his own life and country. The novel features Billy Lynn and his accompanying Bravo Squad soldiers as they attend a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game. The book covers this single day, with occasional flashbacks to Billy’s home life and his military life as a soldier in Iraq. Members of the Bravo Squad are being hailed as heroes after a harrowing firefight with Iraqi insurgents. They’ve been invited to the game, with a special halftime show in their honor, complete with a performance from Beyoncé. The entire story is told from inside Billy Lynn’s head. It is a deeply personal account that exposes the incredible disconnect between a soldier’s life in the Iraq war and life in the country he returns to. Fountain brilliantly captures elements of American culture that take on an absurd, grotesque quality when seen through this uniquely cross-cultural lens.
Fountain has written a book that is as much about family, grief, media, consumerism, sex and politics as it is about war. It has been hailed as “one of the most important books of the decade….as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days.” Just published in May of this year, it is quickly being considered one of the best novels written about the Iraq War. Billy Lynn is often compared to another classic war novel, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Both books depict the effect war has on individual soldiers and both are darkly humorous takes on modern American culture and military life.
Fountain successfully takes on huge targets: the Bush years, the NFL, the Iraq war and American consumerism. In lesser hands, a book of this nature would feel heavy-handed and one-sided. Luckily for us, Ben Fountain writes like a dream. He is one of those rare writers who can write with both immediate urgency and nuance. Like the best satirists, he is able to inspire dark humor, sympathy, heartbreak and anger, all in equal measure. In the end, Fountain’s real strength is Billy. Readers will cheer, laugh and weep for Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old soldier who has seen and done more than most of us could ever fathom.
The new book by Nell Freudenberger is a quiet, understated novel about home, loss, sacrifice and love. The Newlyweds is the story of an unusual marriage in which both husband and wife attempt to find happiness in a relationship that is different than either imagined. George and Amina enter the marriage with very different assumptions, hopes and dreams.
George meets Amina through an online dating site, AsianEuro.com while she is a young woman, coming of age in Bangladesh and he is a fairly conventional suburban man in Rochester, New York. After beginning a friendship online and corresponding for nearly one year, they decide to marry. George goes to Bangladesh to meet his new bride. Shortly thereafter, Amina leaves her village and begins her new life in Rochester. With only a basic grasp of English, she struggles to fit in. Slowly, she begins to carve out a life for herself. She also learns a more nuanced version of English, in which she’s finally able to discern sarcasm.
With her unadorned prose and keen eye for detail, Freudenberger does an excellent job of describing suburban life through the lens of this young Bangladeshi woman. Life in the United States is different than Amina imagined. She sincerely wants to belong and make this new life work for her but she also mourns the loss of her home, her culture and the life she might have had in Bangladesh. Her relationship with her parents is especially difficult. She tries to both take care of them and convince them that she’s really ok, all from thousands of miles away.
The Newlyweds works beautifully as both an immigrant story and an unconventional, heartbreaking love story. Amina is compelling character that stays with the reader long after the last sentence has been read. The Newlyweds would be an excellent choice for fans of Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy or Monica Ali.