Twenty years after the IRA declared a cease-fire in Northern Ireland, a small, unreconstructed group of its members are plotting to buy weapons from a Russian arms dealer. A legendary runner of agents for MI5 known as Vagabond is called out of self-imposed retirement to thwart their efforts to stir up trouble.
For 16 years, Vagabond—given name Danny Curnow—has been leading tours of World War II sites in Normandy to get over the psychic hurt of manipulating too many intelligence officers to their deaths. But "Desperate," as he's also known, can't sit on the sidelines when British double agent Ralph Exton leads republican Malachy Riordan to Prague to do business with a one-time Russian intelligence agent now involved in organized crime. A host of characters adds to the intrigue, including Matthew Bentinick, the higher-up to whom Curnow is unflaggingly loyal, and ambitious MI5 agent Gaby Davies. Will Exton have the gumption to follow through on his assignment in the face of mortal danger? The action unfolds slowly with all its individual stories, interconnected points of view, and shifts between present and past. But in this, his 30th novel (and fourth concerning the Troubles), Seymour has his fragmented narrative down to such a science there's never any doubt that we will be rewarded for our patience. As classic a thriller as this is, it boasts a sharp contemporary edge that traffics as much in cynicism as despair (everyone is haunted by a death or moral failure). In either mode, the tension builds.
An author who seemingly can do no wrong, British spymaster Seymour delivers another first-rate effort—this one focused on an old-fashioned hero facing up to new challenges.
A "mid-level player in some of the key events of the past decade" delivers a dispassionate, discouraging analysis of how the Western counterterrorism effort has gone so terribly wrong.
Kilcullen (Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, 2013, etc.) pulls no punches in describing the current security situation. "The hard truth is that the events of 2014-15…represent nothing less than the collapse of Western counterterrorism strategy as we've known it since 2001…we're worse off today than before 9/11, with a stronger, more motivated, more dangerous enemy than ever." Between George W. Bush's reckless administration and Barack Obama's feckless one, "nobody's in the clear: this is a bipartisan, multinational, equal-opportunity screw-up….” This brief work packs an analytical wallop. The author begins by showing how an initial strategy of "disaggregation"—emphasizing the use of local resources to disrupt terrorist groups that were often primarily driven by local concerns—failed due to inept execution and then was turned to the insurgents' advantage by the Islamic State group’s adoption of "leaderless resistance," an atomized network of lone wolves. Kilcullen explains how American neglect and the sectarian rule of the Iraqi Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki encouraged the rise of the Islamic State group and the loss of Sunni territory so dearly won during the surge of 2007. Finally, the author masterfully ties together the disparate strands of the transformative developments of 2015, including the entry of Turkey and Russia into the Syrian civil war, the Iranian nuclear deal and the loss of territory in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating a comprehensive, holistic picture of accelerating disaster for Western interests. Kilcullen's personal familiarity with the territory and many major players adds elements of vivid color to the well-informed discussions of history and policy, and the narrative is refreshingly nonpartisan.
Direct, insightful, and frightening, this book will prepare readers to see through the misguided, simplistic solutions to the problems of Middle Eastern policy and Islamic terror so common in this election year.
In a work blending culture, religion, history, biography, and a bit of memoir (with more than a soupcon of attitude), the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (2013, etc.) returns with a revealing historical analysis of religious conversions.
Jacoby’s introduction uses the prism of her own family history of conversions to cast color on the topics she will cover. Then she begins her chronological pursuit of her story with Augustine, a pursuit that ends with the Islamic State and the enduring attempts to coerce conversions. Throughout, the author writes candidly about her own atheism and allows herself at times to snap at ferociously religious people; near the end, she mentions the “goofy religious myths” that allow groups of people to feel superior to others. In some sections, Jacoby uses key individuals to introduce and/or illuminate a topic or historical period. There are chapters on John Donne, Margaret Fell, Heinrich Heine, and—perhaps a surprise for some readers—Muhammad Ali, whose conversion to Islam was “inseparable from the contemporary social upheaval.” Jacoby argues that conversion is a far more complex issue than other writers have acknowledged. She spends lots of time on coercive conversions—from the early Roman Catholic Church to modern radical Islam—but she also shows how other factors cause conversions, including intermarriage and personal security. She celebrates the United States, which, from its beginning, refused to endorse a state religion—the founders had seen the consequences of this in the bloody European religious wars—noting that our vast geographical space also allowed various religious groups to establish their own communities and havens. The author, whose political and religious views will no doubt alienate some readers (not to mention her slashing comment about adult fans of Harry Potter!), impressively combines thorough research and passionate writing.
Jacoby draws the first detailed maps of a terrain that has been very much in need of intelligent, careful cartography.
A groundbreaking work on the central role of housing in the lives of the poor.
Based on two years (2008-2009) spent embedded with eight poor families in Milwaukee, Desmond (Sociology and Social Science/Harvard Univ.; On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, 2007, etc.) delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative exploring the ceaseless cycle of “making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless” as experienced by adults and children, both black and white, surviving in trailer parks and ghettos. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty,” writes the author. Once rare, eviction is now commonplace for millions of Americans each year, most often as a result of insufficient government support, rising rent and utility costs, and stagnant incomes. Having gained unusual access to these families, Desmond immerses us in the lives of Sherrena Tarver, a teacher-turned-landlord who rents inner-city units to the black poor; Tobin Charney, who nets more than $400,000 yearly on 131 poorly maintained trailers rented (at $550 a month) to poor whites; and disparate tenants who struggle to make rent for cramped, decrepit units plagued by poor plumbing, lack of heat, and code violations. The latter include Crystal, 18, raised in more than two dozen foster homes, who moved in with three garbage bags of clothes, and Arleen, a single mother, who contacted more than 80 apartment owners in her search for a new home. Their frantic experiences—they spend an astonishing 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent—make for harrowing reading, interspersed with moving moments revealing their resilience and humanity. “All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary,” writes Desmond, who bolsters his stories with important new survey findings. He argues that universal housing vouchers and publicly funded legal services for the evicted (90 percent lack attorneys in housing courts) would help alleviate this growing, often overlooked housing crisis.
This stunning, remarkable book—a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives—demands a wide audience.
Set during the last gasp of the Roman Republic, the final volume of Harris’ Cicero trilogy chronicles the great Roman statesman’s fateful encounters with both Julius and Augustus Caesar.
Harris has written smart, gripping thrillers with settings as varied as England during World War II (Enigma, 1995) and the contemporary world of international finance (The Fear Index, 2012), but his Cicero novels are more akin to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in their subjects—men of towering intellect and humanity—and in their visceral evocation of history. The first two books, Imperium and Conspirata, recounted events familiar only to classical history buffs—Cicero’s rise from relative obscurity to become one of Rome’s leading lawyers, orators, and writers and, in 63 B.C.E., getting the top job, consul. This third book starts with his exile after running afoul of Julius Caesar, the brilliant general whose dangerous ambition Cicero alone seems to grasp. The plot hurtles toward the most famous incident in all of Roman history—the assassination of Caesar. Cicero is not involved in the plot, but he assumes a major role in its aftermath as Mark Antony, an enemy, and Octavian (later Augustus), a young friend who is also Caesar’s adopted son, vie for leadership of the empire. The book is charming as well as engrossing, largely due to the immensely likable person of Cicero, who is wise but not pedantic, moral but not sanctimonious, courageous but wary of the grandstanding of the martyr. In Harris’ hands, the other principle actors emerge fully rounded: Cato, the uncompromising stoic; Pompey, brave but vainglorious; Crassus, greedy and self-serving; Brutus, whom Cicero feared “may have been educated out of his wits”; Julius Caesar, whose “success had made him vain, and his vanity had devoured his reason”; and Mark Antony, who “has all of Caesar’s worst qualities and none of his best.”
Unfortunately for Cicero, his assessment of Octavian—“he’s a nice boy, and I hope he survives, but he’s no Caesar”—proves fatally wrong.
A biracial saloon owner hides his heritage after the Civil War but can’t bring himself to marry a spoiled white woman instead of the strong African-American woman who’s taken his fancy.
Jenkins (Homecoming, 2015, etc.) explores the years after the Civil War with the story of Rhine Fontaine, the son of a white plantation owner and the enslaved descendant of African queens. Rhine’s light skin and green eyes allow him to pass as white, and he rises to prominence in the town of Virginia City, Nevada. He’s a man of property, a rising local politician, and he’s engaged to be married to a beautiful white socialite. Only his business partner and his half brother know the truth about his parentage. When Rhine comes upon an African-American woman who's been robbed and left to die in the desert outside town, he brings her back to Virginia City, nurses her back to health, and helps her find a job cooking at a local boardinghouse. Eddy Carmichael’s cooking may be divine, but she's spent much of her life scrubbing floors to avoid ending up a prostitute like her younger sister. She’s thrilled by the new job and determined to save up money to open her own restaurant. When Rhine casts aside his fiancee and starts hanging around Eddy’s kitchen, she’s sure his motives are anything but honorable. For Rhine, the idea of marrying Eddy makes him reconsider his decision to renounce the African side of his ancestry. In spite of a few forgivable anachronisms, Jenkins’ prose is lively and fluid, her characters complex and engaging, and her plot full of interesting side stories.
For readers who enjoy love stories with steamy interludes against historical backdrops, Jenkins’ latest is not to be missed.
Forced to labor on an Ivory Coast cacao plantation, Amadou risks everything for freedom.
Fifteen-year-old Amadou left his family farm with his little brother, Seydou, searching for a season of work to help their family survive during a drought. Two long years later, the boys are still at the cacao camp where they have been taken and made to work “all day, week after week, season after season, never getting paid.” Amadou, Seydou, and the other boys at the camp must harvest a high quota of cacao pods each day or face severe beatings. When a girl—the camp’s first—arrives, her “wildcat” spirit stirs in Amadou a renewed sense of urgency to escape. The girl, Khadija, also causes trouble for Amadou and Seydou with the camp bosses, setting off a chain of horrific, life-changing events that start the children on an uncertain journey toward home. Following Golden Boy (2013), this is Sullivan’s second novel about real-life atrocities affecting children in Africa. With it, she delivers an unforgettable story of courage and compassion while illuminating the terrible truth about how the chocolate we consume is made. At the same time, Sullivan allows Amadou, Khadija, and Seydou to be the resilient heroes of their own story, just as their real-life counterparts around the world fight against the odds for change in their communities.
A tender, harrowing story of family, friendship, and the pursuit of freedom.
(Fiction. 12 & up)
A young Dominican girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn forges a relationship with a white woman living in a bucolic upstate town and learns to love horses and respect herself.
Eleven-year-old Velvet has a soft name, but there’s nothing even remotely plush about her life in a rough part of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Abused (mostly, but not only, verbally) by her mother, a tough immigrant, Velvet has little to call her own (she keeps her treasured objects—a shell, a dried sea horse, a broken keychain doll—in an old cotton-ball box in the back of a closet) and few friends, almost no one she can trust. Velvet’s mother clearly prefers her 6-year-old son, Dante, singing him to sleep at night with her back to Velvet in the family’s shared bed. Instead of comfort and cuddles, Velvet gets the message that she’s “no good”—not that it’s really her fault; it’s just that her blood is bad. While Velvet craves her mother’s love and attention, Ginger, a 47-year-old sometime artist recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, an abusive relationship, and the death of her troubled sister, finds herself yearning for a child. Now living a comfortable life in upstate New York with Paul, her college-professor husband, Ginger has decided to “test the waters” of adoption by hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid for a couple of weeks, a commitment that stretches far longer and deeper. That’s how Velvet and Ginger meet, and it's also how Velvet meets a mistrustful and mistreated horse at the stable next door to Ginger's house, the horse the others call “Fugly Girl” and she renames “Fiery Girl,” whom she will tame and train, and who will do the same for her. Alternating primarily between Velvet's and Ginger’s perspectives, with occasional observations from other characters, National Book Award finalist Gaitskill (Veronica, 2005, etc.) takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting.
Gaitskill explores the complexities of love (mares, meres…) to bring us a novel that gallops along like a bracing bareback ride on a powerful thoroughbred.
The acclaimed classicist delivers a massive history of ancient Rome, which “continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”
Beard (Classics/Cambridge Univ.; Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, 2014, etc.) writes fascinatingly about how Rome grew and sustained its position. More importantly, she sorts the many myths from history. As in her previous illuminating works, she is no myth builder; she is a scholar who reaches down-to-earth conclusions based on her years of dedication to her subject. This is no simple chronological biography of rulers. The author provides a broad overview of how events from the rape of Lucretia to Caracalla’s granting of citizenship to everyone (except slaves) strengthened and eventually weakened the empire. The rulers of Rome never planned a land grab to build an empire. As the author points out, they didn’t even have maps. However, they continued to conquer peoples, took slaves and bounty, and made their men part of the army and, eventually, citizens. Beard writes of the reformers who fed the people and instituted laws of compensation for abuse. What they failed to do was establish a policy of succession, instead leaving it to luck, improvisation, plots, and, usually, violence. Because the author is such an expert linguist who is exceedingly comfortable in her field, she is able to step back to see the entire Roman world. Throughout the narrative, Beard refers to works by Polybius, Livy, Suetonius, and Tacitus, as well as the prodigious correspondence of Cicero and Pliny the Younger. She shows us how to engage with the history, culture, and controversies that made Rome—and why it still matters.
Beard’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious and is well-reflected in her clever, thoroughly enjoyable style of writing. Lovers of Roman history will revel in this work, and new students will quickly become devotees.