About Time I Read It: The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb

In 2018 I read some outstanding nonfiction, including Neal Bascomb’s 2010 book Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. Not only did it make my Favorite Nonfiction list for the year, but was also the subject of a Nonfiction November post in which I praised it as a fine example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. After thoroughly enjoying Hunting Eichmann I eagerly kept my eyes open for follow-up book, happy to read anything by Bascomb. Then, a year later during one of my weekend visits to the public library I discovered his 2016 book The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Even though I didn’t borrow a copy, nevertheless I made a mental note to do so down the road. Late last week in need of something representing Norway for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook copy for my Kindle. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Winter Fortress as much as I did his early Hunting Eichmann. But thanks to Bascomb’s top-notch research and attention to detail it’s still a heck of book.

I mistakenly approached The Winter Fortress expecting it was the story of a bold yet singular attack on a heavy water production facility in occupied Norway in hopes of derailing Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program. In reality, once the British, and later Americans learned the Germans were trying to weaponize the destructive forces of nuclear fission, thus creating a bomb powerful enough to pulverize an entire city the race was on to stop them at all costs. (As well as launching the Manhattan Project in hopes of building one before they did.) British forces, aided by both the Norwegian Army in Exile and the nation’s anti-German underground made not one but several attempts to wreck production at the Vemork hydroelectric power plant. In addition, the Americans launched a massive bombing raid on the facility. In response the Germans also stopped at nothing to prevent the Allies from hindering their efforts to produce enough heavy water needed for their nuclear weapons program. The result was a blood back and forth battle between those wanting to smash heavy water production and those striving to maintain it. And the civilian population, caught in the middle, frequently suffered.

This is a sweeping wartime saga involving an abundance of actors both major and minor with all of them playing consequential roles. In telling this story, Bascomb includes a ton of detail. But at the same time I’m left wondering if there’s so much detail it slows down the pace of the narrative. Maybe that’s why I preferred his earlier book Hunting Eichmann, to this one. Hard to say, but in the end I learned a hell of a lot about the fight to keep Nazi Germany from building an atomic bomb. 

The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo

As you probably guessed from my last post I’m a sucker for Amazon Kindle freebies. Over the years I’ve helped myself to a ton of public domain books, mostly great works of literature but also vintage stuff in the fields of history, religion and philosophy. On top of that, from time to time I’ve downloaded a number of giveaways, one of which is Shawn Raymond Poalillo’s 2019 crime/action novel The Vatican Cop. Figuring I could apply it towards the European Reading Challenge, Clean Out Your E-Reader Challenge (COYER) and Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge and with nothing to lose I gave it a shot. 

After a priceless holy artifact is stolen and the priest entrusted with its safety is brutally murdered U. S. Dept. of Homeland Security Special Agent Michael Poe is ordered by the White House to assist the Vatican in its recovery. Deputized as a temporary Gendarmerie of the Holy See by none other than Pope Francis, Poe and his stunningly gorgeous Vatican-assigned investigative partner Giada Ferrari search for answers. Refusing to be stonewalled by higher-ups, they doggedly pursue leads, risking life and limb battling a deadly team of well-armed American mercenaries. As more priests are murdered and the two investigators begin suspecting they’re being double-crossed signs point to a 75 year old shadowy cabal pulling the strings. First thinking  the Pope was overly dramatic when asked to solve the crime for the “sake of humanity” Poe soon realizes those behind the killings must be stopped at all costs. 

 A fast-paced thrilling tale featuring an American male lead character paired with a beautiful European female battling murderous adversaries, age old conspiracies and Vatican intrigue set mostly in Vatican City, Rome and environs could easily be called a Da Vinci Code knock off. (Even so, it wouldn’t be the first time somebody took Dan Brown’s formula and ran with it. Paul L. Maier’s 2011 The Constantine Codex immediately comes to mind.) But considering what I paid for this novel, I certainly can’t complain.  

An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl

Starting spring of 2019 the good people at Amazon began giving away free Kindle downloads of a dozen or so books, recently translated into English from a myriad of languages. Representing a diverse assortment of languages and nations of origin, I eagerly helped myself to the offerings and did so again when Amazon did another giveaway the following year. As a result my Kindle is stocked with number of promising works translated from an array of languages including Hebrew, Afrikaans and Turkish.

One of those offerings I happened to download was Annejet van der Zijl’s 2018 biography An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew. Translated from Dutch, I could apply it towards a number of reading challenges, including the European Reading Challenge, 2021 Stacked Reviews Reading Challenge, Books in Translation Reading Challenge, Nonfiction Reader Challenge, and because it was a free download the Clean Out Your E-Reader Challenge (COYER). After a steady diet of heavy nonfiction I was in the mood for something on the lighter side so a few weeks ago I gave An American Princess a try. I enjoyed it and as far as free downloads go, I thought it was a heck of good deal.

Who would have thought when young woman from Upstate New York fell head over heels in love with the vacationing son of a wealthy Pittsburgh family it would lead to four more marriages and a life spanning two continents and membership in two royal families (and a close association with another) encompassing the Gilded Age, World Wars I and II, the Depression and concluding with the Cold War. While only one of her five husbands “genuinely loved her for herself” before he died and left her a widow, she outlived nearly all of them, even after those marriages ending in divorce. Family fortunes were lost, usually squandered away by reckless spouses but after every loss, personal and financial Allene always bounced back stronger than before. 

That 18 year old pregnant country girl who wedded a rich out of towner matured into a sophisticated New York society matron, sponsoring charity functions and living a life of refinement and privilege. Leaving America for Europe Allene made Paris her home, married a German prince, and after divorcing him married a Russian count 12 years her junior. She also helped broker the marriage of Princess Julianna of the Netherlands, who later would be crowned queen. In the years before she died Winston Churchill, retired from politics would paint landscapes near her French estate. In the words of the villainous archeologist Belloc from Raiders of the Lost Ark we are simply passing through history. Judging by Annejet van der Zijl’s biography Allene Tew *was* history.

About Time I Read It: Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis

When it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s been hard finding books set in, or about Monaco. Back in 2016 I lucked out with Mark Braude’s Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle. Recently I lucked out again when, thanks to the blog A Book Lover’s Adventures I learned James Patterson’s 2012 thriller/mystery Guilty Wives is set, partially anyway in the small Mediterranean principality. I’ve never had a desire to read anything by the prolific and best selling novelist but figuring I had nothing to lose I decided to give Guilty Wives a shot. After only few pages I knew I’d made the right choice. Much to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed the popular page-turner, finding it clever and full of twists.

Leaving their husbands behind in Berne, Switzerland four expat housewives hop a private jet to Monaco in search of the ultimate girls weekend. With all expenses paid (courtesy of one of them, a former winter olympic athlete now trophy wife to a tech billionaire), the two Americans, a Brit and a South African check into their palatial presidential suite and hit the ground running. Each one gifted with an envelope stuffed with tens of thousands of Euros in gambling money (prompting one of them to wonder aloud if she should use it to buy a new car or private island) they gleefully descend upon Monte Carlo’s most opulent casino, heading straight to the VIP/high rollers area, where they take turns at the roulette wheel amidst a colorful cast of international jet-setters, kleptocrats and fat cats. (I learned guests must present passports upon entering casinos since gambling is forbidden to citizens of Monaco.) There’s also a trip to a private swimming pool catering to an exclusive clientele, allowing them to lounge in bikinis and soak up equal parts sun and male attention, welcomed by all four of them since their respective marriages are imploding. Capping everything off is an evening of drinking, dancing and shenanigans at one of the principality’s high-end nightclubs. Lubricated with alcohol in the hot, crowded, and pulsing club the women succumb to the charms of a small group of wheel-heeled gentlemen, including a George Clooney-esque A-list actor who immediately hits it off with Abbie, a diplomat’s wife. Open to further possibilities their small ensemble retires to a stately yacht anchored in the nearby harbor later that evening .

But then things go horribly wrong. In the hours before sunrise a horrific high-profile double murder has occurred and the four, despite their innocence are considered suspects and are charged with murder. Hounded mercilessly by French prosecutors to confess and wrongly convicted based on planted DNA evidence the four housewives are sentenced to lengthy terms in France’s most notorious women’s prison. But Abbie refuses to give up. Pressured to confess by a corrupt warden and tortured almost nightly by sadistic female guards she vows to uncover who set them up and why. 

It’s just January but I have a feeling Guilty Wives will probably go down as one of 2021’s pleasant surprises. Ghost written for Patterson or not, whoever put this thing together did a fine job. No loose ends were left untied and the action was exciting up to the novel’s end. This Orange Is the New Black meets Count of Monte Cristo is a fun ride.  

About Time I Read It: Prague Spring by Simon Mawer

2020 was a hell of a year. Future historians will undoubtably look back on the last twelve months and wonder just how and why things managed to unfold so horribly.  Closer to our current predicament, today’s historians view 1968 as a year like few others. Outrage over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War fueled widespread  political unrest both at home and abroad, compounded by escalating racial strife, two horrific political assassinations and a contentious presidential campaign. Overseas, a military offensive unleashed by the North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies wounded America’s fighting resolve while half a world away violent protests rocked Paris, threatening the very existence of the modern French state. Meanwhile, in the Communist world China and the USSR eyed each other with warlike suspicion, the former convulsed in the throes of the Cultural Revolution as rival elites enlisted the nation’s youth in a chaotic and deadly battle for political supremacy. Lastly, in the midst of all this insanity the relatively small, landlocked nation of Czechoslovakia in Central Europe optimistically attempted to create “socialism with a human face” and plot a risky middle path between Western capitalism and Soviet-imposed Communist authoritarianism.

Simon Mawer’s 2018 historical novel Prague Spring is the story of two couples and the respective paths they took leading to their lives briefly but profoundly intersecting in Prague during this short-lived flowering of democracy and the Soviet-led onslaught that crushed it.

Oxford students James and Eleanor, bored and in search of more exotic locales agree in a pub one night to hitchhike across Europe. As they meander across the Continent the two mismatched friends soon find themselves mismatched lovers, and reap all the tension and complications associated with it. While traveling through West Germany they decide on a lark to make an unscheduled detour to Czechoslovakia, sensing from a pair of random interactions with musicians (one, a German classical performer and her nephew, and the others, an American rock band) Prague is on the cusp of something novel and amazing.

Not long after arriving in Prague they paths cross with Sam Wareham, a British diplomat assigned to his nation’s embassy in Prague and his Czech girlfriend Lenka. Just like James and Eleanor, their relationship is also in its early stages, with James meeting and consequently pursuing Lenka mere days after his previous girlfriend has left the county. Considering the potential security risks involved with a member of the diplomatic corp fraternizing with an attractive young woman from the Soviet Bloc their guarded romance, while perhaps not illicit, is nevertheless viewed as a bit on the taboo side by Sam’s embassy superiors, whom he butts heads with on a semi-regular basis. This is made all the more complicated once Sam learns of Lenka’s youthful indiscretions.

When, not if the armies of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact decide to cross the frontier and terminate Czechoslovakia’s experiment in democracy these two couples will need both good luck and timely assistance from well-placed friends and colleagues if they’re to survive.

Mawer is a damn good writer and I’m embarrassed to say despite his sizable body of work I’d never heard of him until now. After having great luck with Prague Spring I’m tempted go back on Overdrive and borrow more of his stuff. I have no problem recommending this well written historical thriller.

About Time I Read It: From Bruges with Love by Pieter Aspe

Reading novels set in, or nonfiction books about Belgium for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge hasn’t been easy. In 2018 I featured Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, set in both Brussels and Paris in the late 15th century, and before that in 2015 it was Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58, also set in Brussels but during the 1958 World’s Fair. Other than that, I haven’t had much luck. But last year I struck gold when I discovered Peiter Aspe’s Pieter Van In series of Belgian mysteries set in the picturesque city of Bruge. Instead of starting at the beginning I jumped in at the end with The Fourth Figure, the fourth novel in the series. In the end I was left pleasantly surprised and vowed to read the others. Just recently through my public library’s Overdrive portal I secured a Kindle edition of From Bruges with Love, the series’ third installment. In contrast to the mostly lukewarm reviews it received on Amazon, I enjoyed From Bruges with Love and fully intend to read the other Inspector Van In books.

When the Vermast family uncovers a decades-old skeleton in their backyard while renovating their antique farmhouse and foul play is suspected, Inspector Pieter Van In is tasked with discovering the identity of both the victim and those who murdered him. But once Van In learns the farmhouse’s former owner is a high profile Belgian businessman, who later donated the property to a right-wing charity completely devoid of expenditures or investments, his investigation points to a growing list of suspects from the highest echelons of Belgium’s political and business elite. All of this while trying to abstain from smoking, drinking and eating unhealthily as a promise to his wife (not to mention conducting the investigation in strict accordance with the law, since she’s a deputy public prosecutor) who’s pregnant with their first child.

Even though I don’t consider myself an aficionado of mysteries and crime novels I enjoy foreign representatives of these genres. While criminal investigators in the United States and around the world all must deal with intra-agency rivalries, jurisdictional turf wars and toxic internal politics, Van In’s must navigate a frustrating assortment of conflicting legal entities thanks to Belgium’s somewhat chaotic de-federalized binational structure. In addition, Van In’s assisting investigator as well as best friend is an out and proud gay man, the two sharing a trust and intimacy not easily found in American novels of this type.

But typical of so many thrillers and police whodunnits, Van In comes across as a familiar, perhaps even warranted archetype. A veteran of his trade, he’s cynical, gruff and bold. Confrontational at times, he’s nevertheless not a violent man. But he can throw a punch if he needs to, and on those rare occasions when he does, he lands it with maximum effect. Above all, he’s smart and capable as hell. Aspe sums up Van In’s secret to success keeping in mind

Detective work is a combination of routine and procedures, an approach that rarely delivers. The big breakthrough in a case is almost always the result of an unforeseen circumstance, a spontaneous confession, an unexpected turn of events, or just pure luck.

I said it last year and I’ll say it again. Be prepared to see other books from this enjoyable series featured on my blog.

2020 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2020 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

When I first sat down to write this post, I feared I hadn’t read enough fiction in 2020 to justify such a list. Lo and behold I soon realized I’d read a number of terrific novels over the course of the year.

  1. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  2. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
  3. Judas by Amos Oz
  4. Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
  5. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne
  6. The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman
  7. Polar Star by Marin Cruz Smith
  8.  The Last by Hanna Jameson
  9. The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon
  10. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe

As for declaring an overall winner, that honor goes to The Angel’s Game by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

Typical of my reading tastes, eight of theses novels are set outside the USA. Lastly, as many as six of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. In last year’s post I made a similar observation, leading me to wonder if I’ve developed a taste for these genres. Seeing this trend continue in 2020 it looks like I have.

2020 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

As the annus horribilis of 2020 finally draws to a close it’s time to announce my favorite nonfiction books of the year. This year, like in years past I read some outstanding nonfiction making it darn near impossible to limit my list to just 10 books. While in past years I’ve cheated and listed a dozen titles, this year I’m gonna stand firm and name just 10.  So here’s 10 books in no particular order of preference I have no problems whatsoever recommending.

  1. The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins 
  2. Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell 
  3. The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue 
  4. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker 
  5. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen
  6. Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
  7. Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas
  8. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
  9. Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
  10. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan 

Sadly, I haven’t been able to review all the books on my list but hopefully I’ll be able wrap things up over the next few weeks or so. Some of you might remember back in April I predicted Black Wave would end up being my favorite nonfiction book of 2020. Despite stiff competition from Hidden Valley Road, The Future is History and The Jakarta Method I’m going to stick with my original prediction and proclaim Black Wave the year’s best. If you’ve followed my blog over the years you already know I almost always includes back-listed titles in my year-end list. To me it doesn’t matter when a book was published, as long as it’s exceptional. This year’s list includes two older books, Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai published in 1986 and Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle in 1966.  

Add to this list a slew of honorable mentions like Masha Gessen’s Surviving AutocracyStephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us” and Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947 and the more I think about it, 2020 was a pretty decent year for nonfiction.

Nonfiction November: New To My TBR

Once again another annual Nonfiction November celebration has come to an end. This year, just as in past years I’m left with a ton of suggestions to add to my ever expanding to be read (TBR) list. This year Katie at Doing Dewey has been kind enough to host the final week of Nonfiction November.

New to My TBR : It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

With so many talented bloggers participating in this year’s festivities there’s no shortage of recommendations available. I’m pleased to say I discovered an abundance of promising books, as well as a half dozen or so book blogs I’ll now be actively following.  As a result my TBR has exploded with new titles and who knows when I’ll get around to reading any of these intriguing works of nonfiction. But since they all look great who cares. 

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

Last week Julie of Julz Reads hosted Nonfiction November and this week another favorite blogger of mine, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. Keeping with tradition, she’s begins with the following invitation:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Last year I discussed prison memoirs. The year before that it was books by or about women who’d forgone religion, be it Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Three year ago I recommended books about Iran by Iranian authors and for 2020 I’ve decided to take a similar approach, but with a slight twist. Instead of focusing on books about a particular country written by citizens or former citizens of that county I’d like to recommend books about a country written by outsiders, be they visitors or foreign residents. Specifically, I’ll be discussing books about Italy by non-Italians. If I had to give my post a tittle I might call it Italy: An Outsider’s Perspective.  

  • The City of Falling Angels by John Barendt – Anyone who’s read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil knows Berendt has a gift for discovering quirky, memorable people and bringing their stories to life. In 1996, after a suspicious fire destroys Venice’s historic La Fenice opera house, Berendt emereses himself among the city’s eccentric and unique characters, many of them expatriates. 
  • The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi – Lots of authors write books about serial killings. But when the local authorities start to suspect the author could be murder, then things get weird. The Monster of Florence is biting expose of Italian society, from its chaotic politics, corrupt and capricious legal system, regional antagonisms and national love of wild conspiracy theories. According to Preston and Spezi, Italy resembles less a modern European democracy and longtime NATO member and more like fractious banana republic
  • La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World by Dianne Hales – Hales adores Italy for the things it’s given the world like opera, cuisine, wine, high fashion, fast cars and cinema.
  • Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law by Katherine Wilson – After graduation, Wilson accepted an internship in Naples where, almost upon arrival she was taken under the wing by a welcoming, supportive Italian family. Falling in love with the family’s son, she would marry, raise a family and over time appreciate the joys of living in Italy.
  • The Italians by John Hooper- Hooper paints Italy in broad yet nevertheless revealing strokes. To him it’s a nation of stark contradictions. Proudly Catholic and home to the Vatican, it’s also fiercely anticlerical. For a nation that fought long and hard to unify itself in the 19th century, the wealthy, industrialized North still can’t stand the impoverished South and visa versa. Organized crime syndicates like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Neapolitan Camorra plague the country but also generate 10 percent of Italy’s GDP.
  • The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones – Jones, a Brit, taught in Italy and spent over four years traveling around the country trying to understand his new home. Jones weighs in on Italy’s second religion, soccer He also looked at the deep scars stemming from the Years of Lead, a period of far left and far right perpetrated violence lasting from the late 60s into the 80s, as well as country’s suffocating bureaucracy. 

While recommending books about Italy by non-Italians, I’d like to bend the rules a bit and mention two novels, both by the same author that offer up entertaining and insightful insights into life in Italy as seen from an outsider’s perspective. Amara Lakhous, an Algerian, was a radio journalist who fled to Italy after receiving death threats from Islamic terrorists. Fluent in Italian, he’s written several Italian novels focusing on immigrant life. (Published in the USA by Europa Editions and translated by Anna Goldstein, who also translated Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.) I’ve read two and I feel I’d be doing you a disservice by not mentioning them. They are Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio and Divorce Islamic Style.