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Posts Tagged ‘CIA’

Somehow, it’s 2020 – and I’m still catching up from Christmas break. Here’s my last list of reads for 2019:

Red Letter Days, Sarah-Jane Stratford
When the House Un-American Activities Committee begins blacklisting writers, Phoebe Adler flees to London after receiving a subpoena. There, she begins working for Hannah Wolfson, a fellow exiled American who’s creating a new hit show. But both women are in more danger than they realize. A well-plotted historical novel with great characters – I wanted to meet Phoebe, Hannah and all their friends for a cocktail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 25).

The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, Jason Hardy
Hardy spent four years working as a parole officer in New Orleans. This book gives an insider’s account of the probation and parole (P&P) system, which aims to keep offenders from relapsing into addiction, going back to jail or prison, or hurting themselves or other people. Hardy wrestles with the lack of resources, the staggering problems facing most of his offenders, and his own privilege. A thoughtful, timely, compelling account. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 18).

Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin
This fun Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in Toronto’s Indian Muslim community, came recommended by Anne and others. I loved Ayesha, the Elizabeth Bennet character, and her supporting cast, especially her Shakespeare-quoting grandfather. Witty, entertaining and sweet, with some fresh twists on the classic story.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
Brown is well known for her work on race relations, and her memoir shares her experience with race and faith, and poses some tough questions. Well-written, hard-hitting and powerful; I’ll be processing this one for a while.

The Queen Con, Meghan Scott Molin
MG Martin, comic-book writer and costume designer extraordinaire, gets drawn into a second mystery involving a local superhero vigilante. But this time several of her friends, including drag queen Lawrence, may be in danger. The plot gets a bit convoluted, but this series is full of nerddom and great characters.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s third year at Hogwarts starts (and in some ways ends) with Sirius Black, a notorious wizard who has escaped Azkaban, the wizard prison. This book is one of my favorites in the series – especially the last bit, where everything (thanks in large part to Lupin and Hermione) blows wide open. So much fun.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, Amaryllis Fox
I blew through Fox’s memoir on my plane ride home. She gives a clear, thoughtful account of her career in the CIA, and the ways an undercover life prevented her from building a true marriage or family. Fascinating and thought-provoking – parts of it read like a spy thriller.

25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander
This was an impulse buy at Trident, and it was the perfect sweet, witty, British Christmas read. Widowed mum Kate is struggling to make Christmas merry for herself and her young son, Jack, while facing harassment at work. Daniel, grieving his sister’s death, is also struggling. I loved the ways their stories intertwined, as well as Daniel’s efforts to support a group of local businesses.

Blind Search, Paula Munier
Mercy Carr, former military police officer, and her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis are back on the case. This time, it’s multiple murder in the Vermont woods, with an autistic boy as the only witness. The writing is a bit labored, but I like Mercy and the other characters, including game warden Troy Warner.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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mrs pollifax series books

I should know by now that when my friend Jacque recommends something, I am basically guaranteed to love it. This has been true for Gilmore Girls, bacon-and-egg baguettes, pasta carbonara (her famous recipe), and many, many books. (She is also partly responsible for the three semesters I spent in Oxford, and by a lovely trick of fate, she was present for all of them.)

Jacque has been urging me to pick up the Mrs. Pollifax series for years. When I recently found the first one in the used-book basement at the Harvard Book Store, I snapped it up (along with – ahem – a few others). And I am hooked.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is a widow living quietly in Cold War-era New Brunswick, N.J. She volunteers at the hospital, attends the Garden Club, keeps her apartment tidy – and is bored out of her mind. So, one day, on a whim, she presents herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, offering her services as an agent. Mr. Carstairs, chief of operations, sends her into Mexico on a simple courier assignment, which (of course) soon goes hilariously off track. The first book takes her to Albania, and its sequels have her flying all over the world, from Turkey to Bulgaria to Switzerland and back again.

Mrs. Pollifax is kind, compassionate, curious and quick-thinking. She harbors a fondness for both adventure and highly unusual hats (several of which play important roles in her CIA assignments). She inevitably gets caught up in far more tangled situations than she’s supposed to – usually because she’s spoken to a stranger, wandered into an unfamiliar neighborhood, or otherwise failed to follow directions. Carstairs and his assistant, Bishop, spend most of each book worrying about her, though as Bishop reminds Carstairs in The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax, they wouldn’t have it any other way:

She goes off on tangents. Operates on impulse and trusts her intuition. When she stops upsetting you, sir, it’ll be because she’s turned into a well-behaved, well-trained and completely predictable operator. You’ll sleep nights and stop swearing. And then she’ll be like all your professional agents, and of no use to you at all, will she?

It’s true: both Mrs. Pollifax’s charm and her usefulness to the CIA are largely a result of her unorthodox way of operating. And in the grand tradition of Miss Marple, her little-old-lady cover makes her an excellent spy. She always returns home having successfully completed her assignment and prevented an international incident – though, of course, she can never tell her neighbors where she’s been.

Packed with political intrigue, oddball characters and sometimes wildly improbable plots, these books are so much fun. If I ever became a spy, I’d want Mrs. Pollifax on my team.

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