Who is Vera Kelly?

Student, activist…spy? Who is Vera Kelly? is a spy novel by Rosalie Knecht published earlier this week by Tin House Books. It’s also a question I asked myself many times while reading this engrossing novel of intrigue and identity. What Vera Kelly is not is your typical school girl, and she’s definitely not your typical spy.

1966 is a dangerous time to be living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For those of you who may have forgotten your world history, events in the summer of 1966 sparked the Argentine Revolution that overthrew the government and began a long period of dictatorship. Up until 1966 Vera was supplementing her low-wage radio station job doing occasional weekend surveillance jobs for the CIA, but the Buenos Aires job would be quite different. I’ll let Vera explain herself:

My handler pitched it to me in January 1966, in a diner where he liked to meet on East Fifty-Second Street. The Argentine president was weak, there could be a coup anytime, and KGB activity had picked up in Buenos Aires. I would have to do infiltration work as well as surveillance. I would be gone indefinitely, months or a year, and I would have to quit my job. For this they would pay me thirty-five thousand dollars.

You math nerds and currency freaks will realize how much thirty-five thousand dollars was in 1966, but I’ll spell it out so the rest of us can understand. According to one inflation calculator I consulted, that would be over $270,000 in today’s dollars. For someone scraping by at $38/per week at her day job (about $259 in today’s dollars) it was kind of a no-brainer financially for Vera to accept the job.

But even more than the money, Vera has found a sense of accomplishment in her work with the CIA. The satisfaction of a job well done in service to her country is what helps make the rest of her lonely existence worth getting up for every morning. I say lonely because Vera is a closeted lesbian and in the 1960s it wasn’t impossible to find female companionship in New York City, but doing so could possibly jeopardize her security clearance. This is a sad way of telling you that Vera suppressed a lot of her identity in service to her country, but she wasn’t always so noble.

The chapters alternate between Vera’s present-day espionage and her formative years growing up in Chevy Chase, MD. Vera’s battles with undiagnosed depression eventually led to a suicide attempt. This is revealed in the very first paragraphs of the book (you’ll get no spoilers from me, but do consider this a trigger warning for a suicide attempt right at the top of the story). Vera’s recovery shut her off even more from a world that didn’t understand her, and would eventually lead to heartbreak and a brush with the law. That sounds very depressing, and it is! But it does steer her down a winding path to the CIA and her life of adventure.

Vera spends much of her time surrounded by other people, and though it’s the nature of the job as a spy to lie to people and not trust what she’s told in return, Vera is essentially a woman alone. It’s hard to make friends when you’re a spy and it’s even harder to find romance or even simple physical companionship when you don’t fit into society’s prescribed heteronormative expectations and ideals.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give more of a taste of the espionage portion of the plot because if this book’s plot were a pepperoni pizza, the spy parts are the cheese and the character development is the pepperoni. It’s got a good sprinkling of character development, but every bite is covered in the cheese of espionage.

The best books make me scattered in my retellings. Just take my awkward pizza metaphor as the gold star this book deserves!

Once the coup in Argentina begins, Vera’s plans go up in smoke and she’s forced to improvise in order to escape the police state and survive. This is where Vera surprises both the reader and herself as she depends entirely on her instincts and cunning to get herself home.

There are secrets, betrayals, weapons, and kisses. This is a book that really does have it all.

I’m not usually a fan of character-driven literature, but apparently if you throw in an engrossing spy plot and some witty dialogue I will fall at your feet in worship. My girl Amy Stewart blurbed this book as “The twisty, literary, woman-driven spy novel you’ve always wanted to read. Dazzling.” And of course she’s right. Vera Kelly is 100% the spy I’ve always wanted. Thank you, Rosalie Knecht, for bringing her into my life.

Now please, please, PLEASE tell me this will be a series?! Because like all great literary characters, after meeting Vera Kelly I’m not ready to say goodbye.

Heartwood 8:2 – Philosophical Toys by Susana Medina

Susana Medina’s novel Philosophical Toys is told from the perspective of a young woman, Nina, about her alcoholic mother, who died when the narrator was six; her father, who develops full-blown Alzheimer’s in the course of the novel; and the time Nina spent in London where she was befriended by aspiring artist, Mary Jane. The story pops back and forth between London and southern Spain. In one of her trips home to Almería, to see her father and to help clear out his house so he can move into an assisted living “commune,” Nina discovers ninety-five shoeboxes containing all kinds of women’s shoes. As she tries to unravel why all these shoes are there, she looks back on her mother’s life and remembers her spell of work as a “foot extra” and that she, or her feet, may actually have appeared in one of Luis Buñuel’s films. She also wonders if her father might be a shoe-fetishist.

Back in London, Mary Jane convinces Nina to be a partner in a gallery show in which Nina will exhibit her mother’s shoes. She reluctantly agrees and is surprised later on when a collector who had seen the exhibit wants to purchase a particular pair of boots. He is building what he calls The Museum of Relevant Moments which is comprised of props from Buñuel’s films, and the boots are the same make and style of the ones that appear in Diary of a Chambermaid (and may be the actual pair).

Toward the end of the book there’s a fine chapter that focuses on problems of authenticity, and it circles back to an early scene where Nina and Mary Jane are in a café commenting on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa hanging there. They observe that what makes a painting valuable is the space in which it is displayed – the one in the café could in no way be valuable due to its mundane surroundings, but the one in the Louvre is valued precisely because it is there. This is true even if it were to turn out that the café iteration is the original and what hangs in the Louvre is a mere copy.

Nina feels a sense of dislocation in language and geography, desire and longing, and her journey includes coming to terms with a mother she barely knew and a father whose memory and life is being ravaged by disease. Medina presents Nina’s world through language that feels completely comfortable and lived in, even as she delves into rather esoteric terrain such as Freudian fetishism, simulacra, and our relationship with objects.

There are many other topics touched on in these pages; in fact, Medina has constructed a narrative not unlike the roped-together shoeboxes that appear on the cover. If you like novels of ideas, with a brainy central character, and an unusually nimble literary style, you should enjoy going through the shoeboxes of Philosophical Toys.

Darkness at the Edge of Town

Whenever I’m reading something online I always appreciate the kind souls who write in bold capitals: WARNING! SPOILERS! There are some mean-spirited folks out there who seem to delight in spoiling a movie or a TV series or even a book. Some butthead online ruined an episode of The Walking Dead way back in season 6 and I stopped watching the show. It was ruined.

So when I heard Stephen King was coming out with a new book titled The Outsider, I was hesitant about reading anything about it online. But being me, I went online because I had no idea what the book was about. The first word in an article about the book that caught my eye was ‘crime procedural.’ My gut sank. I may have even switched to YouTube to watch clips of cats falling off stuff.

I didn’t want a King book about crime and murder. Well, yeah, I wanted the murder part but what I wanted to read about was a monster. Give me a little of that old something’s-hiding-under-my-bed-and-is-reaching-out-to-touch-my-foot. The Outsider didn’t seem to offer up anything supernatural but hell, it’s a Stephen King book. And in the words of Misery’s Annie Wilkes, “I’m his number one fan.”

Set in the small town of Flint City, Oklahoma, The Outsider opens with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Frank Peterson. Horrible things have been done to him. Throat ripped out, violated with a tree branch. The stuff of every parent’s nightmare. Detective Ralph Anderson begins pulling in eyewitnesses who all describe seeing the same man in the vicinity of Frank Peterson: Terry Maitland, teacher and Little League coach. In fact, Terry is a well-known and well liked citizen and has coached hundreds of children over the years. He even coached Detective Anderson’s son back in the day.

The evidence is stacking up against Terry Maitland and when the DNA comes back from samples collected from the Peterson boy it’s a match for Terry. With a few other officers in tow, Anderson decides to arrest Maitland during a huge Little League game. With the stands filled with nearly 1,500 spectators, Anderson approaches the dugout, handcuffs Maitland’s hands in front of him, and reads him his rights. Now, I know what you’re thinking (and no, I haven’t been drinking): of course this guy is guilty as hell. He tore the throat out of a child, raped him, and left enough physical evidence behind to send him to death row to ride the needle.

As Terry pleads his innocence, a little niggling worry started in the back of my mind. And I think everyone is guilty of something. But something about Terry Maitland comes across as innocent. Detective Anderson has seen many horrors during his career. He knows a child rapist and killer could be beloved by the town, attend church every Sunday, and still be a predator. Anderson thinks he has this case closed and solved, eager for Terry Maitland to go to trial and get the needle.

Then the unexpected happens and throws a wrench in Anderson’s case. At the time of Frank Peterson’s murder, Terry Maitland was 200 miles away attending a conference which had the author Harlan Coben as a guest speaker. Not only was Terry with several other teachers, the event was taped. During the question and answer period of the talk, a camera shows Terry stand up to ask a question. There’s no way Terry Maitland killed Frank Peterson. But all that DNA….how is that even possible? I went down several rabbit holes trying to think of a way that could happen. I got stuck in one rabbit hole thinking maybe Terry had a twin he didn’t know about and the twin shows up exacting some kind of ancient twin revenge. Detective Anderson is spinning his wheels, wanting Terry to go to trial and death row but also having heavy doubts.

DON’T WORRY! NO SPOILERS AHEAD.

Remember how I said I wanted a monster, something supernatural? I wanted a good old Stephen King book that was like his first dozen books? Well, he delivered. I’ll give you this little morsel. Picture it: a man with a lumpy, misshapen face and straw for eyes. That is all.

The Outsider is like a comfortable old sweater that fell in the back of your closet and is discovered only when you turn 40 and crawl into the back of your closet to cry and eat a sleeve of Oreos. Not that I do that. Often. King has created memorable characters (I was at work the other day and suddenly found myself thinking about one of them and wondering what they would do next with their life) and a plot so fast and full of action that I was saddened when I reached the end. If you’re looking for a return of the old King (Return of the King! See what I did there?) where he indulges all your dark obsessions and fears, The Outsider is a book to pick up and devour. But keep your feet from dangling off the end of the bed.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Zombies

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. At this point it feels cliché, even if the words hold value. But more to the point, sometimes it can be good to judge a book by its cover! Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is a kick-ass book with a kick-ass cover. Judge away! But please, please do not judge this book by its zombies.

I’d never describe myself as a lover of the zombie genre, though I’ve read more than a few books featuring the undead. I understand why some readers are skeptical of these stories and I realize that it doesn’t really help my case to say “but this book isn’t really about the zombies.” I mean, that’s what everyone says, right? But listen…this book?  It isn’t really about the zombies!

283ca973-6947-478d-abe1-e941ef671538-dreadnation_hc-for-webDread Nation takes place in the years following the Civil War. In this version of history the dead began to rise during the war, forcing the North and South into an uneasy truce. The South was ravaged by dead soldiers who have risen from battlefields and agreed to end slavery in exchange for Northern support. However, like during the actual Reconstruction Era, many Northerners and Southerners in this version of history remain determined to punish people of color and pursue the interests of white (and only white) Americans. One way that white supremacy manifests in Dread Nation is through a reeducation act that forces native and black children into schools. They are taught how to fight the zombie hordes – called shamblers in this book – sacrificing their own well-being to ensure the safety and comfort of wealthy and white society.

Jane McKeene, Dread Nation’s narrator, is a student at one of these schools. She is training to be a lady’s attendant, expected to cater to the whims and needs of a member of high society while also lopping off the heads of any shamblers who come-a-shambling. Though Jane takes readily to combat training and has a brilliant mind, she struggles to follow rules, is disinterested in etiquette, and bristles at the expectation that she ‘know her place.’  When Jane and two of her friends wind up on the wrong side of some very powerful (and very racist) politicians, they are banished to Summerland, Kansas.

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Justina Ireland

Summerland is supposed to be the vision of the future: technologically advanced, morally pure, well defended, and structured to provide comfort to white society through the toil and suffering of people of color. But Jane quickly discovers that not everything in Summerland is as it seems and that the poisonous ills woven through the fabric of this ‘utopia’ threaten not just the people of Summerland, but the survival of the human race in the battle against the dead. It will take all of Jane’s courage, scrappiness, and intellect to find a way to escape from this flimsy house of cards before irreversible disaster strikes.

It is worth noting that Ireland uses upsetting language to describe some groups of people. To my knowledge, these words are used in a historically accurate way even if they are far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today. It can make parts of this book uncomfortable, jarring, and difficult to read, as it should be.

Dread Nation holds its own as a dystopian zombie novel with a fast paced and thrilling story filled with dark mysteries and some gruesome deaths. But this book also serves as an excellent work of speculative fiction: reimagining the Civil War, many of its famous people and events, and the societal forces that both led to this conflict and impeded any legitimate notion of equality long after the war’s end. Ireland uses this book to take a frank look at the ways bigotry and hate thrive, even as humanity struggles to survive. And, finally, Jane is a phenomenal narrator: witty, charming, plucky, and perhaps just a bit deceptive as she pulls the reader into her story. Like I said – it’s not about the zombies!

Children of Blood and Bone

81PwjK8tPCLSometimes everything comes together perfectly. When I first heard about Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi it was still several months from release. The description checked a lot of boxes for me and I was excited to eventually read it, but I wasn’t desperately waiting for its release. Then I saw the cover. And, I mean, look at that cover! I was definitely in. Once I saw Black Panther and – like everyone else – was blown away, I reached a new level of excitement for Adeyemi’s work. A new series about magic, oppression, bigotry, and class set in an isolated West African country? Ummm yes, please. Add in a complex and rich backbone of mythology and I never stood a chance. So when I finally had this book in my hand I was elated, but also wary. Could it possibly live up to the hype? You’ll have to keep reading to find out, but I’m writing about it so you can probably guess…

Children of Blood and Bone is set in the fictional kingdom of Orisha. Power in Orisha was once shared between normal humans and Magi, a subset of society gifted by the gods with powerful supernatural abilities. Years before the novel opens, however, these powers mysteriously disappeared and the ruthless King took advantage of the situation, slaughtering the Magi. The scattered and abandoned children of the Magi are known as Diviners and conspicuously marked by their white hair, but unable to summon any powers. Diviners are treated as the lowest caste at best derided, at worst abused and used as slave labor.  

Zélie is one of these Diviners. Forced to watch the murder of her Magi mother when she was just a child she is angry at the Empire, determined to strike back, and more than a little bit rash. Despite being something of a pariah, Zélie, along with her father and her brother, manages to eke out a modest life trading fish for a living and training for the day when she will have a chance to take her revenge on the King and his followers.

Zélie’s impulsivity, however, throws her life into chaos when she rescues Amari, a princess from the royal line who is on the run from her terrible father. The decision to help Amari sends Zélie and her brother on a perilous journey unsure of who they can trust and what terrible dangers might await them. But Zélie is also running towards something – Amari claims she has a scroll that can restore Magi magic. Zélie hopes that this would give her people have a chance to fight back, restore their dignity, and maybe even begin to restore balance to Orishan society. Yet to reach this future Zélie and her companions must first evade Prince Iman, Amari’s brother and heir to the Orishan throne. For his part, Iman is determined to capture his sister and Zélie not just to end the threat of magic but also to finally prove himself to his cruel and demanding father. Beyond the obvious lethal danger the prince poses Zélie and Iman quickly discover they have a strange and unbreakable connection, one that threatens both of their worlds in opposing but equally devastating ways.

There are a lot of glowing adjectives I could use to describe Children of Blood and Bone, but the one that repeatedly comes to mind is refreshing. I’ve read a lot of wonderful YA novels that move in the worlds of dystopia, fantasy, history and mythology, but the vast majority are based off Western or European traditions. Having this wonderfully rich, exciting series build off of African traditions and get the support it deserves from the publishing industry is as welcome as it is long overdue. In Zélie, Amari, and Iman, Adeyemi has created three compelling and complicated narrators who are both eminently likable and, at times, incredibly frustrating. I’ve read some criticism that Children of Blood and Bone reads like an author’s first novel (probably because it is) and drags at times. I understand where this criticism comes from, but it’s also quite simply a thrilling read with a captivating ending that leaves plenty of juicy questions for the rest of the series to tackle.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

When Kristin Hannah’s new book The Great Alone became available there was a bit of a buzz around the office. When I received notice that my electronic hold was available the timing couldn’t have been more perfect: we were scheduled to leave on vacation the following day.

Once the pilot gave the okay to power on electronic devices, I pulled out my new iPad with a relish of anticipation only to be quickly disappointed that I’d failed to download the book.

Lesson number one: You do not need to use Wi-Fi to read or listen to e-books or e-audio books, but you do need to download them to your device. I’d only gone as far as checking the book out; consequently it was unavailable on my flight down. However, I was pleased to access it on my return flight. Being on vacation is the best place to start a book. I sat on my sister’s patio on a balmy Tucson morning and entered into the uncharted pages of The Great Alone.

Alaska and Maine have long-held a fascination for me. They are destinations where I imagine adventures with unique grandeur and scenic marine swept beauty. Someday I hope to travel to these geographic east/west opposites. So far my experience has been literary. I have been to Maine in Christina Baker-Kline’s A Piece of the World and to the Alaskan Yukon through Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World.

Hannah’s book engaged me from the get go. Set in Seattle in 1974, the story quickly moves into the wild outskirts of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Ernt Allbright is a Vietnam vet and POW survivor who receives his ticket out of Seattle via an unexpected inheritance of land from a deceased army buddy. The family packs their meager belongings into a VW van and head up the ALCAN Highway.

Told through the eyes of Lenora (Leni), Hannah fleshes out a dysfunctional family bound by fear and devotion. I sympathized with Leni who had to move from school to school, starting over far too many times. The peacekeeper of her family, she maintains a protective and loving relationship with her mom and a skewed but respectful relationship with her unpredictable father.

Situating the novel in a rugged and remote outpost of Alaska during the post-Vietnam era creates a tension that slowly builds in the pit of your stomach and continues to grow. Hoping to escape reoccurring nightmares and failed attempts to keep work after returning from Vietnam, Leni’s father promises things will be different this time around. Secrets, shame, and disillusion begin to breed contempt, however.

For me, it is difficult to understand how a woman can allow a man to beat her in one moment and then take him back in the next, but that’s what Leni’s mother Cora does. She makes excuses explaining that her father is sick; mother and daughter form an alliance and learn to speak the language of silence. Leni’s mom chose her man over a stable home and parents who loved her — Leni doesn’t have a choice.

The family arrives at the start of summer where deceptive sunshine floods into the late hours and food is in abundance. Had it not been for the intervention of wise and caring neighbors who extended their kindness by helping the Allbrights prepare, the family would never have survived their first Alaskan winter. The hopeful enthusiasm for a fresh start begins to fade as the long dark days of an Alaskan winter creep in. The promise Leni’s dad made to stop drinking and beating his wife slowing dissipates, replaced by violence and vengeance fueled by whiskey and a growing paranoia.

The stage is set for disaster and the plot thickens. Leni’s father’s jealousy is aimed at the father of her best friend Matthew. Leni and her mother become adept survivalists not only in the Alaskan Wilderness, but in their own home.

At the time of this writing there are 26 holds on the book, but the list was longer when I was reading the electronic version. At first I couldn’t put the book down, but I was forced to in order to meet the deadline for my book club. Then, about two-thirds of the way through The Great Alone the story took a turn and went from a page turner to a ‘I can finish this later’ type of book. I was not ready to completely give up, however, and was fortunate enough to snag a large print copy to continue reading.

I grew up in the Northwest and in the era depicted in Hannah’s story I would’ve been about the same age as Leni, but my life looked much different. Even though I had my own family drama by the early 80’s, I was living my own dream: young, newly married and starting a family. We lived out in the country with a wood stove and thrived on simplicity. My idea of roughing it was romanticized by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. I knew little of the horrific aftermath of the Vietnam War and less of the devastation it took on men like Ernt.

The Great Alone is a story of ‘behind closed doors’ giving insight into the pain and suffering that our country was still reeling from in the late 70’s early 80’s. Things were not perfect. Hannah captures and develops believable characters and portrays a young family trapped in crisis. I found the transition of pace and tension shifting gears a bit abrupt, but I loved the beautiful description of Alaska and how the story segues into a redemptive ending.

The Great Alone is a must read for 2018!

Xiomara and Nate

I’ve never minded our wet winters too terribly. I’m a grizzled native of upstate New York. I sneer at nor’easters and laugh off blizzards. I shoveled my driveway all winter every winter from the age of eighteen days to eighteen years. I walked to school uphill both ways in freezing rain while wearing flip flops. So now, a little northwest rain? That’s what real winter warriors like me call “cute.” Grossly exaggerated braggadocio aside, I still get excited for Spring. Peeks of sunshine, baseball games, blooming flowers, and best of all, a deluge of phenomenal new fiction. As usual I’ve been glutting on YA novels and while several have been standouts, two in particular have worked their way into my head staying with me long after I turned the final page.

Xiomara, the narrator of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X, is an incredibly compelling and complex young woman who immediately won me over. She is fierce, independent, and loyal to her twin brother, but also struggling with questions about her identity and the conflicts between her own desires and the expectations of her Dominican parents. The relationship with her parents is particularly tenuous – while her brother is treated as a golden child, she has always felt like more of a problem than a blessing:

As issues with her parents come to a head and romance with a classmate grows complicated, Xiomara is desperate for a release which she finds through her poetry and a developing interest in slam performance. Xiomara has finally found a place where she belongs, but unless she can make her parents better understand her world, she may lose this precious chance to blossom through her craft.

CoverReveal_PoetXBeyond the beautifully crafted characters, this verse novel shines because of Acevedo’s fantastic writing. This should be no surprise as Acevedo is an extremely talented poet, but I was still struck by the sheer beauty of her storytelling. As an added bonus, this month’s Reading Challenge is to read poetry. All you need to do for a chance to win is to take a photo with the book you read and post it on social media with the hashtag #EverettReads. Poet X is a profound and compelling work that I am excited to suggest to the young readers I work with each day and it’s eligibility for the April challenge is the cherry on top!

While Poet X has stuck with me because of its wonderfully dynamic characters, S.F. Henson’s Devils Within has haunted me with its resonant, tense and chilling depiction of domestic terrorism. The story opens with a young man named Nate moving to a new town to live with his uncle. Nate wants nothing more than to keep his head down and remain unnoticed, but he has a past that will be difficult to escape. Nate is the son of a powerful white supremacist leader and was raised to carry forward his father’s hateful legacy. Despite a childhood filled with violent acts, indoctrination, and racist misinformation, Nate always felt that his father and his followers were wrong and yearned to be free of their poisonous influence. He eventually does escape, but it comes with a cost. During a frantic struggle Nate kills his father and spends time in both prison and a treatment center before being turned over to an uncle who believes his nephew is the same brand of bigot that Nate’s father was (and a killer to boot).

91NuLbodoFLNate is determined to keep his past hidden. He is deeply ashamed of the life he led and is terrified of being tracked down by his father’s vengeful and zealous compatriots. Nate begins school but struggles to adjust to his new social and academic surroundings. Over time Nate is offered a glimmer of hope. Brandon, a popular classmate, seems genuinely interested in befriending Nate and determined to help him find a place in his new town. Nate is amazed as Brandon is not only the first kind person he has met in the town, but also his first friend who is a person of color. As the ghosts of his past begin to fade Nate yearns to open up to Brandon, confessing the horrible things he has seen and done. But before Nate can take this risk his past begins to catch up with him, bringing with it the toxic hate and terrible violence he thought he had left behind threatening to destroy his new life and, even worse, putting his new friend in jeopardy.

Henson is unflinching in her portrayal of the racism and bigotry that is still pervasive in our society. While at times this book is a thrilling adventure, it is also a fever dream that I know is far too real for many Americans. As the novel approached an impending and climactic confrontation I wanted desperately to stop reading and yet could not put the book down. In my mind that is as high praise as I can give.

At first glance, there are not many similarities between the story of a Dominican girl in Harlem and a former white nationalist in Alabama. But as I dwell on both Xiamora’s and Nate’s stories I see many through lines in their lives. They’re both in conflict (albeit on very different levels) with the expectations and identities of their parents, desperate to find their own place in the larger world around them, and yet determined to live their lives by their own rules not by those forced upon them. I am so grateful to both Elizabeth Acevedo and S.F. Henson for creating these memorable young people and allowing me to see the world through their eyes.