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My Book Reading

 

The Word Is Murder - Anthony Horowitz

Star of the North - D.B. John

The Sinners - Ace Atkins

The Outsider - Stephen King

Spymaster - Brad Thor

The Other Woman - Daniel Silva

The Man Between - Charles Cumming 

Operation Mincemeat - Ben Macintyre 

Berlin: Caught in the Mousetrap by Paul Grant 

Berlin Game - Len Deighton (for the Spybrary book club)

Desolation Mountain - William Kent Krueger

Forever and a Day - Anthony Horowitz

MI5 and Me: A Coronet Among the Spooks by Charlotte Bingham

Second Strike: A Thriller by Peter Kirsanow

The Fourth Protocol - Frederick Forsyth

Agent of Influence - Jeremy Duns

The Middle-Man by Olen Steinhauer

Handsome Johnny by Lee Server

The Company by Robert Littell

Podcast Favorites

http://spybrary.com/interview-spy-novelist-charles-cumming/ David Craggs and Shane Whaley hold a no-holds-barred talk with the outspoken Charles Cumming. Conversation ranges far afield from his new novel, The Man Between, to classic spy novel influences and even some current political commentary tidbits. 

http://www.thelivedrop.com/live-drop-episode-6/Mark Valley talks with Tim Hall, who served in the US Army in Germany, specializing in Morse Code signals -- collection and transmitting. Tim was at Teufelsberg, a special listening station used by the US Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) and NSA during the Cold War. As all episodes of The Live Drop display, Valley brings his unique military and intelligence background to his conversations.

https://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-303-rukmini-callimachi  Rukmini Callimachi covers ISIS for The New York Times and is the host of Caliphate. This 90-minute conversation is phenomenal, superior even to her fine Caliphate podcast. 

Behind the Bookshelves - The AbeBooks podcast - Ian Fleming's Lecacy June 1, 2018. This episode is a wonderful, detailed 22 minute interview with bookseller Jon Gilbert about Fleming's writing career, WWII Intelligence work, short stories, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and more. 

 

Sunday
Sep162018

Handsome Johnny: The Life and Death of Johnny Roselli - Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin by Lee Server

I didn’t realize how much I knew about Johnny Roselli before reading Handsome Johnny. He’s ever-present in books relating the sad story of the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 (such as Robert Littell’s wonderfully engrossing The Company). The CIA also recruited Roselli for their ill-fated attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Before that, Roselli hung out in Frank Sinatra’s world in the late ‘50s and into the early ‘60s (when Frank was still openly consorting with Mob figures). He was around John and Bobby Kennedy. Going back even further, every biography of Al Capone tells of the supporting role the young Roselli played in his organization. He spans the generations of organized crime and somehow keeps popping up.

Absorbing the vast landscape of Johnny Roselli’s life in crime while reading Handsome Johnny, I’m struck by how those decades overlap with organized crime moving into the consciousness and culture of America. Transitioning from local figures and small-time activities, Prohibition opened the wormhole to the massive growth and organization of crime families. Go a bit down the timeline and watch Las Vegas come into play and grow explosively. Johnny Roselli was a man for every season, the guy in the right places at the right time (if you want to be a successful mobster). 

Lee Server dug into massive piles of research for Handsome Johnny. I’m struck by his detail and care with timelines. Imagining how Server kept it all straight reminds me of one of those yarn-photo-wall collages Carrie Mathis creates in Homeland. Roselli led a complicated life, made even more complex for Server as decades of it took place with every effort made to keep it off the books. After all, professional gangsters don’t keep journals or diaries for journalists to pore over decades later. Even with the never-ending waterfall of characters, events and conversations portrayed in Handsome Johnny, I never lost track of the storyline or felt out of touch with Roselli. 

By the middle portions of Handsome Johnny, once Las Vegas is established and running, I was beginning to find myself somewhat bored with him, with his life. He seemed to have reached the zenith of where he was going to go in the business. Much as Roselli was looking around for new avenues of interest, I was hoping the book would speed up or resolve itself. 

Server comes through, showing why readers should hang on for the entire ride. Once the Kennedy clan bumps into Roselli’s world, his life energizes. Everything he’s involved in going forward is on a new scale, with previously unthinkable consequences. 

He’s running with the Kennedys and Sinatra in their special universes. Then the CIA asks for his help in various secret plots to kill Castro. Imagine Roselli’s shock; a life-long criminal of the highest order, asked to help the government in their war against communism. Rosselli considers himself a patriot, so he jumps in. All of these assassination projects fall on their face, costing lives and political favor. But somehow Roselli is always the last man standing.

Possible involvement in John Kennedy’s assassination is hinted at. At the time the FBI was tracking him closely, and an absence of known detail (at least unclassified) in Roselli’s life and movements that week, and his associates at the time, points to possibilities. Considering there are entire libraries of books delving into the Kennedy assassination, only hints about it find a home in Handsome Johnny.

Later, Roselli ends up testifying before the U.S. government about organized crime, the CIA and the intelligence operations he was involved in. His long life as Johnny Roselli (of course not his real name) and his illegal activities and involvement with the CIA and a slew of South American coups and assassinations, and the entire Cuba business, all came out as Roselli was trying to save his skin and not live out his days in federal prison. What a way to make the front pages of newspapers across the country. 

Handsome Johnny chronicles the almost unbelievable life and "career" of Johnny Roselli. Everyone liked this guy, he made friends everywhere he went, as he lived a larger-than-life existence in organized crime. His ending is very ugly, but the ride is fascinating. Lee Server does a bang-up job with this guy, not allowing endless detail to overwhelm the reader. I enjoyed the thrill ride from front cover to ending.

 

@StMartinsPress, #leeserver, #handsomejohnny

 

Tuesday
Sep112018

Recently Published Military History Roundup

Here’s some recently published titles I’ve my hands on that have caught my eye. Certainly I’ve not read them all. Some I’m digging into, but consider this more of an announcement.

If there is a contemporary WWII historian on the same level as Antony Beevor, it’s Ben Macintyre. Based on his comments on the back cover of Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem, Macintyre is a Beevor fan as well. The Battle of Arnhem is another of Beevor’s tight looks at a critical, and in this case, often misunderstood, battle of World War II. He supplies his trademark exemplary detail, and throughout the course of telling an extraordinary story, brings alive the military commanders, fighting men and Dutch civilians alike.

The Battle of Arnhem had the biggest and most complex airborne attack of the war. Muddled by logistical issues and political wrangling on the Allied side, and surprised by the German military’s response, the massive, complex operation aimed at ending the war with a resounding victory went south in dramatic fashion.  Beevor digs into the flawed planning and infighting, brings to awful life the intensity of the fighting, and highlights the toll Dutch civilians paid. 

Antony Beevor tells World War II history in an unsurpassed manner. My introduction to his writing was a dozen years ago, when a friend lent me his paperback copy of Stalingrad. Wow, I’d not read a military history as engaging as that splendid book is. To say he brings a story to life is an understatement. I’ve been a reader and fan of Antony Beevor ever since. Battle of Arnhem is among his best.

@VikingBooks, #antonybeevor, #battleofarnhem

 

The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy is an oversize hardcover presenting full-length examples of the comic strip of the 1930s and ‘40s. In it’s day, Don Winslow was immensely popular. Today, it’s historical, relevant, and absolutely worth a look. The reproductions in this book are beautiful; it’s nice to hold them in such a nice volume between hard covers. From layout to design, The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy is well done.

In it’s heyday, this creation of Frank Martinek was among the most popular comic strips in the U.S., written and drawn over the years by different artists. At times Don Winslow was used as propaganda on behalf of the war effort, a task the character was suited for, and one common in the entertainment industry during World War II. I find the wartime pieces to be quite entertaining, and don’t mind the pro-war effort. This is pulpy adventure fiction with memorable villains, fist fights, and even a sexy heroine here and there.

Editor Craig Yoe put together a nice selection of Winslow episodes (full stories) for The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy. He opens the book with a strong introduction, serving as background and context of Don Winslow and his creators. This book is a fitting testament to a comic strip almost forgotten today, enjoying unsurpassed popularity in it’s time.

@DeadReckoningGN, #donwinslowofthenavy


The Bravest Man in the British Army by Philip Bujak

I could’t resist digging into a book with such a dramatic title. Who could pass up The Bravest Man in the British Army?

Lieutenant Colonel John Sherwood Kelly VC lived and died in an extraordinary manner. This English soldier had a long and impressive career, throughout the (then) vast British Empire. Along the way he was awarded the Victoria Cross, distinguished himself repeatedly in combat, but somehow found himself at odds with a young Winston Churchill in 1919. It’s a complicated story, well told in the book, but Kelly lost that battle, resulting in his court martial.

John Kelly’s life and military career were deeply intertwined, pretty much one and the same. This history book pulls back the curtain on the lives of English soldiers just after the dawn of the 20th century. I cannot let the outstanding photography and graphic design of the front and rear covers go unacknowledged, either. 

@penswordbooks, #philipbujak

 

Operation Columba - The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance in Europe by Gordon Corera

What a long, rambling title for this book. I suppose it’s of value in this case, as I imagine most people have no clue homing pigeons were used in WWII in such numbers (British Intelligence dropped 16,000 homing pigeons in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1941 - 1944)

Operation Columba involved intelligence carried by birds. Homing pigeons. They were kept and utilized by the Resistance in Europe, and thousands of other rather ordinary citizens (actually, working to support the Allied war effort from an occupied country went above and beyond, always with potential great threat). Everyone involved was eager to help the Allies learn as much as possible about the German forces, disposition, movements, and life under occupation. Tiny folded slips of rice paper attached to the feet of pigeons did the job. Imagine, for a moment, critical troop movement information entrusted to a flying bird!

In case you feel the story of the Secret Pigeon Service doesn’t sound exciting, let me assure you author Corera pulls off a superb job building an interesting and at time humorous narrative.  This was all new to me, and Corera’s imaginative abilities as a writer kept the pages turning and my head in the game.

@WmMorrowBooks, @gordoncorera, #operationcolumba

 

The Pendulum: A Granddaughter’s Search for her Family’s Forbidden Nazi Past by Julie Lindahl

This powerful book and Lindahl’s story touched me, as it has many others through the author’s speaking engagements and writings. Born after World War II to expatriate (hiding) Germans in Brazil, in the early 2010’s American Julie Lindahl embarked on a long, traumatic journey to discover the facts about her grandfather’s long life as a Nazi in the SS. His career as a Nazi began in 1934 and lasted throughout World War II, after which he fled to South America to evade war crimes trials. She knew this and that, enough to know there were secrets, many secrets, but set off mostly on gut instinct

Lindahl learns the gritty truths about her grandfather, and wrestles with the horrors and guilt and social relevance of her family history. As stories and myths unwrapped, she came to learn her family’s deep, dark secrets, and find her own life entirely changed along the way.

I’m not doing justice to The Pendulum. Lindahl’s message is timeless, all the more so in this age of rising right-wing, extremist dark areas society. Living with the author as she learns and grapples with the knowledge of her family’s past is a deep experience. Her bravery facing the past teaches a lesson for all of us. 

The Pendulum is good reading; don’t be scared off by the grim topic. Lindahl is a fine writer, digging deeply into this important part of her past, uncovering along the way lessons for all of us. I’m impressed with her honesty and narrative skills.

@RLPGBooks, @JulieLindahl, #thependulum

Island Of Fire: The Battle for the Barrikady Gun Factory in Stalingrad by Jason D. Mark

 

The horrific toll of the fighting in 1942 between the German and Russian armies for control of the once magnificent city of Stalingrad, in Russia, is an often-told story. The massive Island of Fire breaks down a specific, lengthy action from the campaign. 

The Barricady Gun Factory came to symbolize the stubborn courage exhibited by both sides throughout this terrible, costly battle, and how an objective could appear to be so important at the time yet make little sense from the perspective of history.

Mark’s book is extensively researched and footnoted. In more than 620 oversize pages, the author damn near lays out a day-by-day, step-by-step diagram of every aspect of this lengthy battle, from each side’s perspective. An abundance of small maps appropriately peppered throughout the text are helpful. Some of the photographs, notably the peeks into the personal lives of German soldiers on the ground, are fascinating. 

Island Of Fire reflects today’s never-ending appetite for detail, understanding and knowledge about World War II.

@StackpoleBooks, www.leapinghorseman.com.au, #islandoffire

 

Thursday
Sep062018

Man of War by Sean Parnell

Sean Parnell delivers Eric Steele to the world in his fiction debut, Man of War, with a bang. I was immediately taken in. Expecting yet another military/Operator/Seal thriller, instead I was impressed with a riveting plot and memorable characters. 

Sure, Steele is one of those somehow glamorous lone warriors, ex-military, now heading up a black ops division. There’s always one of these guys floating around with the right friends in the right places, with nobody else understanding him or the ultimate mission. After an individual-sized nuclear device is stolen, involving intricate plots and betrayals, it’s eventually revealed that a presumed-dead former ally from Steele’s group is behind the plot to light up the world with this bomb. Leadership in America is rocky, factions are vying for power, and it becomes clear there’s a traitorous spy in the U.S. political leadership. 

Steele and a small group of unlikely allies come together to face down the threat.

There, didn’t that sound boiler-plate? I assure you, Man of War is one of the most exciting thrillers I’ve read in a long time (and I go through a lot of ‘em). Steele is a good character, I got to know him, and enjoyed how he developed and grew, hurt and dealt with his experiences. The story is exciting, with nicely put together action.

Parnell is already a fine writer, in only his second book (his first, Outlaw Platoon, is non-fiction/memoir). I’m excited about where Sean Parnell goes from here as an author.  Remember these names:  Parnell. Steele. In the near future you’ll be anxiously awaiting future books by Parnell, featuring Steele. Guaranteed.

 

@SeanParnellUSA, @WmMorrowBooks, #ManofWar

 

Thursday
Aug232018

The Middle-Man by Olen Steinhauer

The Middle-Man is much more than the intelligent thriller I anticipated. Steinhauer has written some great spy novels, but this book is superb without the genre tag. This book is wonderful, thought-provoking, and suspenseful. I was involved beginning with the opening pages. Reading carefully, I was anxious to find out what was going to happen next, and savoring his prose as I went along.

His plot about a country on the brink of revolution pained me with it’s parallels to today. It was easy to become involved with the characters, amplifying my sweating the outcome.

Call this a FBI thriller, though worldwide intelligence organizations are involved. Spies and intelligence and spyycraft play heavily in this story. In The Middle-Man Steinhauer has a superb novel reflecting the impossible-to-have-anticipated political turmoil of today, yet still bringing to the pages excitement, a fresh plot, and characters I lived and cried with.

Author Steinhauer gains my respect as he talks in his acknowledgements about the original drafts and direction of The Middle-Man. The book morphed wildly from it’s original direction. He realizes the scale of the political changes taking place in the world today, and incorporated much of this unease and displacement and anxiety in the book. I respect Steinhauer for responding to today's weird, who-could-have-known political climate. He found a way to weave it into an exciting story that stands alone as a thriller, but reveals hidden meaning and insight for readers paying attention.

 

@olensteinhauer, #themiddleman, @MinotaurBooks

 

Tuesday
Aug212018

Agent of Influence by Jeremy Duns

Agent of Influence is a slim book at 83 pages, but one with significant effect. Author Jeremy Duns works his subtitled topic, “Antony Terry and the Shaping of Cold War Fact and Fiction”, weaving an utterly fascinating behind-the-curtain story I didn’t want to end. Duns, tell me this self-published edition is merely you dipping a toe into the water to gauge the size of your potential audience!

Antony Terry is one of the legends of Cold War journalism. In real life, he was the guy movie watchers and readers imagined themselves as. He slipped through the dark alleys and dead drops and brush passes of Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, Biafra and Paraguay (and who knows where else?) from the late 1940s into the ‘60s. Terry chased down Nazis after the war; he wrote about every espionage organization in the world. What could be a more fascinating story, and why don't I know more about this guy?

Jeremy Duns lays out a strong case that Terry also willingly wrote propaganda on behalf of the English government, disguised as reporting and journalism. Does this mean he secretly worked for MI5 or MI6? Big deal or not, it's always topical, never more so than today.

Terry and his wife Rachel (who went on to pen spy novels using the name Sarah Gainham), had a long and tempestuous friendship with Ian Fleming. Both Antony and Rachel provided Fleming with background material for some of the James Bond novels, often going to extreme lengths with brief deadlines. Using existing letters between Terry and Fleming, Duns effectively fleshes out the relationship and displays the extent to which Fleming was unafraid to ask for assistance. Terry and/or Rachel usually responded at length, sometimes within one or two days.

Ian Fleming famously worked for British Naval Intelligence during WWII. His James Bond novels were written and published in the 1950s, only a single decade after the end of the war, and  portrayed the world of MI6 and British Intelligence in popular fiction for the first time. I found it fascinating to learn how Fleming leaned on Terry at times to provide him with detailed background, lay-of-the-land information, and even dialogue.

Antony Terry’s work was a strong influence on Frederick Forsyth’s writing, also. Duns draws direct lines between Terry’s journalism and some of his novels, notably The Odessa File

These relationships, and Duns' impassioned writing, bring Agent of Influence to life. Antony Terry was a superb journalist, unafraid to wade into the thick of things. He immersed himself in his work, letting his personal relationships slide as his writing and assignments and travel overtook his life. The back and forth between himself and Ian Fleming is engrossing, and new territory for me as an enthusiast and amateur historian of the era, interested in the writing and creative process. 

I’m not exaggerating when I brandish my hope that Jeremy Duns wrote Agent of Influence hoping it would stir up sufficient interest in a longer, in-depth look at Antony Terry, his wife Rachel, and their intertwined professional relationships with Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth. I've barely touched on the insights Duns provides about propaganda from the typewriter of journalists such as Terry. That may be another book entirely!

Agent of Influence is superb reading, deeply annotated and researched. Duns put together a non-fiction book that flows like a fantastical spy tale. I could read and enjoy 1,000 pages of his work in this area. 

www.jeremy-duns.com

 

@jeremyduns, #antonyterry, #agentofinfluence