Hiding Out in Thailand

I recently posted 4-star reviews of my first two Jake Needham reads–Laundry Man and The Ambassador’s wife. It’s hard to get that fifth star out of me, but Killing Plato puts Needham into the superstar class of international thrillers, right up there with Cussler, Child, and the rest.

Plato Karsarkis is a high-profile–very high profile–fugitive living in the Phuket resort area south of Bangkok. Jack Shepherd is a former high-finance lawyer, semi-retired, who’s teaching college in Bangkok, where he lives with his new Italian-artist wife. Suddenly, Karsarkis wants Jack for something. What it is, Jack doesn’t care because he wants nothing to do with this guy who got rich selling embargoed Iraqi oil to terrorists. Plato came close to trial for his misdeeds once, but the one witness who could have convicted (Kasarkis claims exonerate) him had her throat slashed in a DC hotel room, so Plato took it on the lam.

Try as he might, Jack can’t seem to disentangle himself from this thing he doesn’t understand how he got tangled up in. Before long, he’s surrounded by the CIA, the FBI, some rogue organization that could be both or neither, and the Thai secret service. And there are reverberations that go all the way back to the white house.

How this all works out–or doesn’t–keeps you not only thrilled but emotionally involved, for Needham traces not only the action, but the sad deterioration of a marriage. And not only does he not interrupt the action to portray this painful romance, he uses it to enhance the action.

I’ve said too much, but I can’t say enough. Do a Nike move and just read it.

Bring Up the Bodies

Chronologically, this a sequel to Hilary’s superb Wolf Hall, to which I gave five stars recently. Wolf Hall traces the separation of Henry VIII from the pope and the Roman church in a dispute over the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Spain. We see the events through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rises from the gutter to become Henry’s “Master Secretary,” perhaps the equivalent to our president’s “chief Counsel,” and Attorney General combined, though there is no proper 16th Century equivalent for what Cromwell does.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up as the relationship between Henry and Anne is deteriorating. Elizabeth is a young girl, but Anne has still failed to deliver a proper (i.e., male) heir, which Henry needs to stabilize the dynasty and the realm. Anne’s hold on the throne has been tenuous from the beginning among blue-bloods and commoners alike. Depending on who’s speaking, she’s still considered a heretic, witch, adulteress, and usurper.

Overall, Bodies lacks the dramatic tension of Wolf Hall, a book which is taut and involving throughout. Its terrific opening scene where Cromwell is being beaten by his blacksmith father is a shocking prelude to the compelling tale of a common man’s rise from the gutter to royal counselor. How uses his native shrewdness, learning as he goes how to handle men, women, and paperwork, enthralls us on every page. When, eventually, he becomes the lead legal honcho in all the negotiations involved in the complex and intense maneuvering required to separate the king from his wife and England from Rome, and to bring Anne Boleyn to the royal bed, we’re as much taken with Cromwell’s personal involvement as with all the affairs of state and the royal heart. Bring Up the Bodies suffers somewhat from starting at a point at which Cromwell has already made it. In fact, his main struggles at the beginning are how to best suck the wealth of the Abbeys the king has “decommissioned” into the royal treasury and take a cut for himself in the process. All of this is interesting, but lacking somewhat in theater.

Where things get going is when it becomes time to move against Anne and usher in her successor, Lady Jane Seymour. Now we see that Cromwell has become something more than a sharp guy from the streets with lofty ambitions. As he moves against the accused adulterers, the men who will be executed for fornicating with the queen, he focuses on the spoils, the houses and fortunes that will be vacated by their executions and thus become available in part to him. In short, he’s become more than a little corrupt and venal. He protects one man he finds useful and can call friend, for example, even though the evidence against him is as good (or lacking) as that against the others. The rest get the ax. In all this last third of the novel we get the electricity of Wolf Hall. The rest is every good, carried by Mantel’s unique and often delicious literary style, but none of it has the juice of the last 150 pages. And they’re well worth waiting for.

A Crook With a Noble Mission

Eddie Chapman was a true life con-man and thief who turned his talents and inclinations to the wartime (WWII) service of his country. He was more or less loyal to England and to himself, but, as one of his handlers put it, he’d was the sort to do you a good turn while lifting your wallet. He was a libidinous drinker who was loyal to his lovers in, as the song says, his own way. He might leave, but he’d always come back. Eventually.

Ben MacIntyre traces Chapman’s life as he moves from his flashy pre-war exploits and incursion into the ranks of West End glamour (Noel Coward was an associate for a while.) into a jail term and hence into a pardon in return for becoming a double agent. If you’re looking for insight into the criminal mind–even beyond Les Edgerton’s The Bitch and Just Like That as well as an spy tale worthy of John LeCarre, you won’t do better than Agent Zigzag.

The guy was such a master. Playing both his English handlers off against one another and his German colleagues likewise. He leveraged his skills and knowledge into money and prestige and a bit of power and sex, and he enjoyed himself the whole way. He had a loyal bone or two in his body, but not an honest one. Even though you know the outcome, the twists and turns of his trips back and forth between England and the continent, the love affairs, the betrayals keep you on pins and needles every page.

In the end, I had nothing but admiration and affection for this guy, despite the fact that he was in many ways a thoroughly despicable person. I guess that’s what they mean by the Stockholm effect or something. When you read it, don’t skip the epilogue. It contains stories of people who came forward after the book’s original publication, folks Macintyre hadn’t encountered in the first go-round. Fascinating story, well written.

Serena’s Anything But Serene

I read Rash’s Saints at the River a few years back and swore never to go near the guy again. I found Saints a preachy environmentalist tract with a few stereotyped, two-dimensional characters tacked on to make it look like a novel.  But a friend (and her book club) liked Serena so much I broke my vow and picked it up. Good move, and thanks, Janet.

The year is 1929, market’s just crashed. Serena and her new timber baron husband, whom she and everyone else addresses merely as Pemberton, arrive in Waynesville, NC to begin their new life. They’re soulmates in mind, body, spirit, believing themselves transcendent and destined. Things start a little rough. Waiting at the station is a pregnant teenager and her father. Her father has a knife. Complications ensue, but the Pembertons brush such trifles aside.

They’re concerned with reaping timber and riches, with celebratingtheir unique love, and with clear-cutting everyone who gets in their way as they would a forested hillside. The biggest problem is a tribe of pesky politicians and journalists who want to establish what later becomes the Smoky Mountains National Park. At this point, the government is in the process of buying some acreage and eminent domaining their way onto the rest.

Most of the time we spend in the company of Pemberton and/or Serena, or with young Rachel, mother of Pemberton’s love child. However, in between, we get a sort of Greek chorus of workmen in the woods commenting on the action, providing us an insight and perspective that I think gives the book a unique and unforgettable texture. Hard not to think of Faulkner and his townspeople.

Perhaps as significant as Serena and her character, which one commentator thought made Lady MacBeth look soft, is Rash’s language. It’s often so poetic it almost becomes a character in itself and, though there is plenty here about the destruction of the land wrought by greedy capitalists, creates in Serena an experience in the humanity and inhumanity of the human heart rather than the polemic that isSaints at the River is:

–The Land’s angle became more severe, the light waning, streaked as if cut with scissors and braided to the ridge piece by piece.

–[Dragons used to breathe fire] but they evolutioned out of it to survive.And like that.

Plus the details.

Rash gives meticulous accounts of both the machinery and the motion of each task involved in each part of the story, whether it’s felling hickories or digging ginseng. The Shay locomotive, the mattock in a linen bag, the training of the Berkute Eagle from Mongolia.

Plus the artistic economy.

The old Chekovian saw about an author’s obligations after introducing a gun in the first act? Rash observes it to the last inch. From the Bowie knife (you’ll think he left it out, but he didn’t.) to the bag of marbles and more besides.

Plus conjuring and fortune telling and other such mystical doings.

And the reason I haven’t spent more time discussing Serena’s character? Commentary is no substitute for reading her story for yourself.

If all that isn’t intriguing enough for you, try this:

Where else are you going to experience a fight between a Komodo Dragon and an Eagle? I know you’ll want to know how that turns out.

This Bird Will Fly

The Seventh Son. Seventh Seal. Seventh Magpie, that legendary mischievous creature. From the moment you read the title, you know you’re in for something mystical and spiritual,and Ms. Sharrock doesn’t disappoint. At the same time, the book is firmly placed at the center of the human heart. No frothy, bubbly faerie stuff here.

The book spans four centuries–1606 to 2060–opening with a Welsh witch burning, then jumping to a post-apocalyptic time travel adventure, then returning to times in between. We soon realize we’re following the descendants of that original witch through time and the world–oh, and the descendants of her parents, too, who are not exactly 17th century folks. The central focus eventually settles on the 1980’s and Helen, a woman truly caught in the middle. She begins to realize her paranormal abilities, fights them, but eventually follows her visions, and is left with the burden of knowledge of the spellbinding past and present as well as the armageddon future. And she has to decide what she can or should do to stop it all from happening.

And the magpie? Well, he’s been there all along. Watching, delivering messages, waiting for the moment. And of course, we’re waiting, too, wondering what that moment is and what will happen when it comes. How can we have a 400-year-old magpie? I wouldn’t want to rob you of the experience of discovering that by reading this delicious adventure for yourself. Follow this magpie to his hidden treasure.