by Valerie Plame-Wilson
Genre: Political Memoir
Valerie Plame-Wilson became a spy for the United States Central Intelligence Agency soon after graduating from college and made a name for herself not only through her work as an Operations Officer but also her marriage to Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador and outspoken political figure.
With the invasion of Iraq on the horizon, Valerie’s husband was sent to Niger to investigate a classified claim that Saddam was purchasing uranium from the African country. Joseph Wilson did not find any evidence of this and informed the CIA. Despite this information, the Bush White House cited the Iraqi purchase of uranium from Niger as a central reason for going to war. Valerie and her husband were shocked that the administration had ignored his report and lied to the American people.
Livid, Joseph Wilson wrote an Op-Ed article in the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” setting the record straight on his intelligence-gathering trip there. What happened next was unprecedented, as White House staffers retaliated to Joseph Wilson’s article by outing Valerie Plame-Wilson as a CIA operative.
Fair Game is the memoir of a remarkable woman who lost her livelihood and passion at the hands of the United States government. With (unclassified) details about her start in the CIA and the events which led to her husband’s trip, it was an interesting biography of a CIA operative’s life. With the drama of Joseph’s article and the volatile aftermath, the book was also an interesting reflection on Washington politics.
I was young when the War on Iraq began, and I certainly had no interest in it when it had begun. Looking back, it influenced my life in a lot of ways that I didn’t recognize at the time, but I was so young and it was so far away, I didn’t know much about what had led to it besides the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Even after studying International Affairs in school, I learned about the international politics behind the war, but this book opened my eyes to the national politics that shaped our decision to invade Iraq.
I am an independent, but Valerie and her husband are very public and very staunch Democrats. While this book made some major attacks on the Bush White House, though, I don’t think it was too slanted to the left. She doesn’t hide her political affiliations, and she does attack the right, but it was clear that her attacks were justified and she was careful to criticize only those who were directly involved in the scandal.
While this book was well-written, it was heavily censored by the CIA, and quite a bit of content was blacked out. In the audiobook version, which I listened to, Valerie Plame-Wilson reflected these edits with a “beep” which was a bit comical and a bit distracting at times. I would definitely recommend reading the hard copy of this book over listening to the Audiobook version. I also should point out that this book was made into a movie, and though I haven’t seen it, I think it would be an interesting watch based on my reading.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for a wide range of readers, but if you’re interested in politics and are able to keep an open mind while reading it, I think you’d enjoy it as much as I did.
The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag: A Flavia de Luce Novel
by Alan Bradley
Genre: Mystery (but it felt more like fiction!)
Flavia de Luce is an eleven year old girl possessing an obsession with death and chemistry and the knack for solving mysteries. You would think that a girl on the cusp of maturity growing up in the small village of Bishop’s Lacey, England, during the 1950’s would not find her way into so many sticky situations, but Flavia is anything but normal. Growing up in a creaky old mansion with her mean but gifted older sisters, her strict but caring father, and a small staff of the village gossip as cook and a war vet as butler, the characters in Flavia’s life are as colorful as she is. When a travelling puppet show stops in Bishop’s Lacey and a murder takes place soon after, Flavia finds her unique set of skills and knowledge being tested as she winds up solving two murders at once.
For picking this book up on a whim, I cannot express how much I enjoyed it. I was utterly enchanted with Bishop’s Lacey and the de Luce family. Flavia is such a multidimensional character! Her wittiness and spunk, combined with her maturity wildly beyond her years, would make one think that her personality would be completely unbelievable given her young age, but Flavia’s brattiness (as one disappointed Amazon reader labeled it) helps remind the reader that she is still in her difficult pre-teen years, despite her intelligence. Because I was so enamored with Flavia, I was absolutely giddy to find out that this was only one book in a series: the second, in fact, of four with two more coming out in the next two years.
While investigating this, I found a nice little note written by author Alan Bradley on Amazon about his relationship with Flavia, a part of which I have excerpted here:
Flavia de Luce walked into my life one winter day, parked herself on a campstool, and refused to be budged.
It took me quite a while to realize that she wasn’t even faintly interested in the mystery novel I was attempting to write at the time: the one into which she had wandered. I found out quickly enough that Flavia wanted her own book—and that was that.
And it was just the beginning. There were still more problems to come.
The first was this: Flavia lived in 1950, while I was writing about her in 2006 and 2007.
As an author, it’s not as easy as you might think projecting—and keeping—your mind in a different century from your body—not without forever being yanked back into the present by everyday annoyances such as frozen water pipes, expiring license plates, incessantly barking dogs, and the need to shop for food.
Another problem was this: I lived on Canada’s west coast, where the clocks are set to Pacific Time, while Flavia lived in Bishop’s Lacey, England, which is on Greenwich Mean Time—a difference of nine hours. In practical terms, this meant that Flavia was raring to go every day just as I was getting ready for bed. Because there was no point in either of us being tired and cranky, we finally managed to work out a compromise in which I began awakening at 4:00 a.m. to write, while Flavia (rather impatiently) hung around until after lunch, waiting for me to show up.
I have heard authors speak of their characters as if they are real people, but this was the most interesting description I have come across, and I think it is very telling of his writing. Flavia is as alive on paper as she apparently is in Bradley’s mind, and that’s something any reader can appreciate.
Bradley also did an amazing job developing the townsfolk and sharing their backstories. While Flavia is the protagonist of this series, the people of Bishop’s Lacey are not puppets that react to what she is doing, they have their own pasts, presents, and futures, and that’s something I appreciated.
As for the mystery itself, it was so-so, but I appreciated this book as a piece of fiction rather than mystery, anyway.
A note about the audiobook: I was in love with the narrator, Jane Entwistle. Thankfully, according to Random House, she is the narrator of all the books in Flavia’s series, so I immediately went and reserved the rest of them from my local library.
I would recommend this book for anyone who has a taste for the nostalgic years of post-war Britain (perhaps those who appreciated the time period of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Next to Love?), loved the movie “Matilda” growing up (not that Flavia possesses magical powers, but she is certainly intelligent beyond her years), and a hint of mystery.
by David Nicholls
Let me first start off by saying that this book never sparked an interest in me. Even when I was working at the bookstore the summer it was released, and women came up to me every day to tell me how fantastic it was, the plot never resonated with me. A tale of two lovers told by showcasing one day every year of their lives? Bo-ring. A few weeks ago, I was wandering the audiobook section of my local library, looking for something new to try for my 2 hour commute when I saw the unmistakable cover peeking out at me. I picked it up on a complete whim and stuck it in my car’s CD player.
The audiobook lasted forever. I spent 16.5 hours with this thing, spanning 13 discs, and I was quite tired of the story by the end of it. Truthfully, though, I don’t think I would have been able to finish it in paperback form: I probably would have gotten too fed up and lazy after reading the first few pages. Driving 80 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic on I-95, and being unable to take my eyes off the road to change the CD was probably the only thing that kept me involved in this story for so long.
The two protagonists of One Day are Emma and Dex: two young adults who officially meet at a party on the day of their graduation and attempt a one night stand. Instead of sleeping together, however, bookish political activitist Emma and ladies’ man Dex end up spending the night talking into the early hours of the morning, eventually spending the whole day together and forming the foundations of a steady friendship that will last them the rest of their lives. This day - the 15th of July - is the one author David Nicholls returns to throughout the rest of his book, telling their stories by giving the reader a snapshot of each character’s life on that day every year. Marriages, divorces, moves, jobs, children, joy, and sorrow are all covered remarkably well by just following the characters one day a year.
I think that’s where most of my hesitation came from: how could this book be thorough if it doesn’t even show you the rest of the 364 days? Nicholls does a very good job with filling in the gaps, however, and while there were some times I found myself asking, “What ever happened with…?” I ended up thinking the book was very well written, indeed.
I only wish I liked Dex more. While Emma is absolutely lovely when she grows out of her activist phase, becoming a humorous, self-assured, independent, creative woman, Dex never seems to grow up. Sleeping his way through university, skirting around the world on his parents’ wealth, finding fame and fortune easy as an attractive young man, he is not a very likeable character. While Emma works hard, biding her time as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, Dex is bedding all sorts of foreign models and throwing his wealth in her face. Throughout the book, I kept asking myself, “What do they see in each other?” Like Emma, I am bookish and a bit serious, and throughout my life, I have somehow managed to find myself guy friends who are a lot like Dex. Before too long, though, I always get sick of them and end the friendships over some silly thing or another: “Oh, I asked you to get a drink after work, and you invited 30 of your crazy drunk friends and a few girls you want to take home tonight? I think I’ll be going.” “So you’re telling me that on our day trip to our amusement park, you’re showing up 2 hours late and bringing the girl 5 years your junior who you’ve been dying to sleep with? I think I’d rather ride the roller coasters by myself…” Altogether, I’ve been in Emma’s position, and I can’t see how their friendship lasts the decades and decades that it does with not only his crappy personality but his abhorrent behavior.
The book isn’t really bad, though, even with one of the characters being such a boar. It is well-written, evokes a full range of emotions while reading (or listening to) it, and is a generally pleasant way to pass the time. I don’t have strong feelings for it either way, but I do not regret the time I spent listening to it. A further note about the audiobook version of this text: the narrator, Anna Bentinck, is very talented and does a great job differentiating between all the voices.
I would not recommend this book for anyone who is looking for a fluffy, romantic read or a “they all lived happily ever after” ending. This book gets a bit gritty and has its low points. The characters are flawed, and Nicholls does not hide their misdeeds from the reader. There is also a lot of foreshadowing when bad parts are going to happen, so personally, I had time to mentally prepare myself for them. I would recommend that one pay attention to the clues. Altogether, I liked it. Not a whole lot, and not a little: it was just pleasant.
Dex struggles with alcohol through the entirity of the book. Having personally had very little to do with the subject, never really knowing anyone besides a few errant classmates who battled with those demons, I found it very hard to relate to and very hard to read about. Emma, while lovely, is a bit too spineless in many parts of the book, especially when it comes to giving Dex another chance after he’s screwed up with her so many times.
Like anyone who’s seen “When Harry Met Sally” could probably tell you: the two are destined to be together, though their union always seems just out of reach. Nicholls is almost infuriating as he keeps delaying their romance with things like bad timing (when they meet, Dex’s plane tickets are already booked for a destination half a world away), lost letters (boozy admissions of love from Dex left behind in an old sofa, barely-hidden feelings from Emma that Dex is too wasted to understand), and surprise pregnancies (all that sleeping around was bound to catch up to you sometime, Dex), along a host of other good reasons not to get together. When they finally do - and only because Emma is willing to break off an early romance with a Frenchman in the wake of Dex’s divorce - their time together is far too short before Emma tragically dies in a random accident. Like I said, this is not the book for lovers of happy endings, and Dexter spirals out of control with his alcoholism in his mourning. His future, at the end, does not look happy, but it does look alright, as he places one foot in front of the other on his way to recovery.
Doctor Who: The Day of the Troll
by Simon Messingham
First things first: I am a huge Doctor Who fan. Since we are currently in between seasons, though, I had to get my fix in other ways. Hence why I was practically giddy when I found this audiobook in my library. Read by David Tennant himself, the listening experience was as interesting as the story. Although it was rather short for an audiobook at only 2 hours in length, they were a thoroughly enjoyable 2 hours indeed.
For those who don’t know anything about Doctor Who, it’s a very long-running British television show that was revived in the 2000’s for the younger, more tech-savvy generation. The Doctor is a human-looking time-travelling alien who explores time and space with a “companion” - usually played by attractive young women. The TV show is chock-full of action, adventure, and humor, and it’s thoroughly addicting (even for a girl like me, who isn’t really into sci-fi).
This audiobook differs from the TV series in one significant way: the Doctor isn’t travelling with a companion. It wasn’t too big of a concern, but it was a bit of a disappointment, as Martha is my favorite companion, and it would have been nice to see her make an appearance. No matter. This book follows the Doctor - solo - as he arrives in Britain at some future date when the world is in the midst of an international food crisis. A brother and sister team have set up a farm on the now-vacant British subcontinent to try to grow the one resource that the world so desperately needs. When her brother goes missing, co-founder Dr. Katy Baring has a mental breakdown, and suddenly everyone on the Grange farm is on the alert for a potential security breach. Cue the Doctor, as he arrives to uncover the extraterrestrial circumstances in which Dr. Baring’s brother disappeared.
David Tennant’s narration was the highlight of this audiobook - be prepared for his Scottish accent, by the way - and the sound effects and background music were pleasantly unexpected additions to the experience. Altogether, the audiobook felt like an episode from the Dr. Who vaults, and I was quite pleased with the result.
I’d recommend it for all Doctor Who fans who, like me, are faced with a daily commute (currently: an hour and a half and counting) and would like a little pick-me-up to brighten their day.
If You Could See Me Now
by Cecelia Ahern
After enjoying reading (okay, listening to) Cecelia Ahern’s The Book of Tomorrow a few months ago, I decided to pick up another audio book version of one of her novels: If You Could See Me Now. Lighthearted chick lit with a bit of a twist, this book seemed to match her other work. While I enjoyed the book, and especially the audio version of it (I love the Irish accents), I can’t really think of why. The ending was disappointing, questions were left unanswered, and yet… it was still a cute, pleasant story.
Elizabeth is an interior designer living in a small Irish town, taking care of her family as she’s done her whole life. Her mother, an alcoholic drifter, left her family so often in her childhood, Elizabeth learned to pick up the pieces herself, taking care of her heartbroken father and raising her little sister, Saoirse (I seriously just Googled that; how do you think it would be pronounced? In the audiobook, it’s said as “Sure-sha” – who would have thought?). As with many young girls forced to grow up too early, Elizabeth is a serious sort of woman: quiet, terse, and a strict follower of the rules. Saoirse, meanwhile, has depended on Elizabeth to take care of her throughout her whole life, and as a result, does not appreciate her older sister’s kindness and becomes an alcoholic and drifter just like her mother, leaving her young son, Luke, in Elizabeth’s care. Elizabeth, never really having a childhood of her own, does not allow Luke a fun-loving childhood, either, and forces him to adhere to the same strict rules in her household that she has set for herself. When an imaginary friend called “Ivan” enters Luke’s life, Elizabeth thinks that her strict parenting style just needs to be amped up a bit to get rid of him, but little does she know, Ivan is real, and he’ll soon be making an appearance in her life, too.
This book was lighthearted and fun. It is actually told from two perspectives, Ivan’s and Elizabeth’s, which gave an interesting twist to the story. When Ivan becomes visible to Elizabeth after a few days of only being able to communicate with Luke, he makes it his mission to give her the childhood she never had. Over the course of the book, the two grow more and more fond of each other, and even call it love, but how can they stay together with the constraints of the Invisible Friends lifestyle: never aging, never being seen by anyone else, and never having control of who they are sent to help next?
Altogether, it was an interesting conundrum, and I really had hoped to learn more of the inner mechanics of the Invisible Friends business. How do they get started? How do they get from their home base of “Ekam Eveileb” to our world? What other powers do they possess? Where do they get their powers from? These questions were never answered, which disappointed me, as did the kind of ‘eh’ ending. I still felt content after reading the book, but there were some questions that kept nagging me long after the CDs were done.
Interestingly, this book was actually supposed to be turned into a Disney movie starring Hugh Jackman. It was in “pre-production” for a long while, then Jackman allegedly bailed, and the whole movie page on IMDB has since been deleted, so there is little hope for the movie’s future. It’s still interesting to note. Personally, “Brave” looks so good, I’d be happy if that were the only Irish movie Disney released this decade.