"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Mission to Paris

TITLE: Mission to Paris
AUTHOR: Alan Furst

I'm addicted to Alan Furst's Europe-in-World War II novels.They're all connected, even if the protagonists and other main characters are different, and this book has many references to characters and incidents in other of his novels. The setting, as it often is in his books, is Paris in 1938-39, on the brink of war. An American movie star, but European by birth, is in Paris to film a movie, where he becomes a subject of interest to influential members of a group advocating for peace and cooperation with Germany, aka appeasement. If they can get the American actor, Fredric Stahl, to appear to be a friend of Germany and an advocate for peace, it will be quite a coup for the Nazi propaganda machine. And those attempts bring Stahl to the American embassy in Paris, where he becomes an informal spy, one of many, being run out of the embassy to spy on Germans. Stahl's role is mostly as a courier, but it is a dangerous one.

At so many points in this novel, it felt like more than the usual work of historical fiction. It felt like a primer for today, especially when a journalist explains to him how the Nazis are trying to use him and how they manipulate the media, behind the scenes, to shape the public's perceptions and influence their opinions. How smear campaigns were used to destroy anyone trying to warn France of the Nazi danger and the need to re-arm France for war. So much of what Hitler's minions and wealthy and influential French people did echoes what is going on today. Control the media, control the message, and you can control enough of the population. And as we now know, it mostly worked for Germany, because when they did invade France, they met with weak military resistance. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but the invasion these days doesn't necessarily come from without, but from within to slowly erode democracy.

I read a lot of historical fiction and a lot of science fiction and I realized they have one thing in common: They both point out human behavior, with lessons for us to learn, lessons too many people never learn, and so, we keep making the same mistakes. This book is one of Furst's best, a good blend of intrigue, suspense, characters to root for, and a history lesson that shouldn't be ignored.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fatal Flame

TITLE: The Fatal Flame
AUTHOR: Lyndsay Faye

The third, and last, because this is a trilogy, not an ongoing series, Timothy Wilde mystery. I'm going to miss spending time with these characters. It's now 1848 in a still-young but already grimy and gritty New York City. Tammany Hall's corruption touches everything, and women are expected to fill the roles men allow and nothing more. A police detective before the word "detective" was in use, Tim is assigned the case of an arsonist torching the properties owned by a corrupt alderman, Richard Symmes, the same Richard Symmes Tim's brother Valentine decides to oppose in an upcoming election. Throw in immigrant women forced to work for low or barely any wages as seamstresses and their attempt to gain more rights through a strike, and you end up with a powder keg waiting to be set off. Then Tim's personal life gets complicated by the return of Mercy Underhill, the woman who he first adored when they were growing up together as friends. And, fittingly, Tim is forced to face his biggest fear: fire. Because a fire killed his parents when he was young, and a later fire almost claimed him, leaving him scarred.

Faye balances all the story and character elements of this complex plot with skill. Her research seems topnotch, and has inspired me to read up on this time period in New York City. The narrative voice is Tim's as he writes of the events, and of his own heart, from the distance of time. An epilogue puts a satisfying cap on the trilogy. I'm going to miss Tim and his way of looking at his world.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seven for a Secret

TITLE: Seven for a Secret
AUTHOR: Lyndsay Faye

The second Timothy Wilde mystery is the middle book in a trilogy and an examination of the threats to free blacks living in New York City, and by extension, anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. When a free black woman rushes into police headquarters at the Tombs in 1846, claiming her son and her sister were kidnapped by slave hunters from the south, Copper Star Timothy Wilde takes the case, and becomes embroiled in a complex, heartbreaking case that earns him the wrong kind of attention from the Democratic party bosses.

Faye, as she did in the first book of the trilogy, The Gods of Gotham, brings New York City in the 1840s to life, showing the fruits of her research. Between the details of life at the time, the political climate, the bigotry that echoes modern times and shows how little has changed in too many ways, and the intricate machinations at the heart of the case Tim investigates, I was once again drawn into the past. The mystery might be fiction, but the time and place were all too real. I highly recommend this for lovers of historical fiction and mysteries.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Gods of Gotham

TITLE: The Gods of Gotham
AUTHOR: Lyndsay Faye

When I bought this book, I had no idea it was the first in a series, but I'm happy to discover there are at least two more available for met to read. Set in 1845 New York, this mystery uses to good advantage three historical happenings: a devastating fire that destroyed much of lower Manhattan, the potato famine in Ireland that brought large amounts of Irish immigrants to New York that led to a Protestant-Catholic conflict, and the formation of the New York Police Department. Upon reading the Historical Afterward, I learned a smaller incident, that of the discovery of the body of a murdered infant that sets the tone for the book is also based on reality.

The protagonist is Timothy Wilde, a bartender-turned-copper star of the newly minted NYPD after he's burned in the aforementioned fire and lost his home and savings. Thrust into a case of missing and dead children who were working as prostitutes in one of the bawdy houses, he comes to realize he has real skill at getting to the truth of things. Throw in a complicated relationship with his older, politically connected brother and some social commentary, and the reader is treated with the presence of a wonderful character I sure want to spend more time with. The first half of the 19th Century in New York City is a period with which I'm not very familiar, as it was mostly skipped over back when I was in school, but thanks to this book, I feel I've gotten a bit of education. A good work of historical fiction inspires me to read up on the events covered in the book, and The Gods of Gotham is no exception.