Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Review: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of SpiesGiles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War

This book tells the story of a Cold War prisoner exchange that, in the author’s view, helped to stave off World War Three. William Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, was a Soviet agent (actually British by nationality) who was captured in New York city because of his work spying on the U.S. nuclear program. Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot flying reconnaissance over the Soviet Union to get a look at its nuclear arsenal; he was shot down on one of his missions and imprisoned in Russia. And Frederic Pryor actually had nothing to do with the spy game at all — he was simply an American student in Berlin studying Eastern economics, arrested by the Stasi because he fit their profile of what a spy should look like. Cold War tensions were running high at this time, so the agreement to trade Abel for Powers and Pryor was a vital gesture of good faith between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

In my American history classes in school, my teachers would always run out of time at the end of the year, so we’d usually only get as far as World War II in the lesson plan. As a result, I know basically nothing about the Cold War and was excited to read this book to learn more. I have to say, I found it slow going at first, as Whittell takes a long time to set up the three prisoners’ backgrounds. He also goes into stupefying detail about the type of plane Powers flew and the various engineering difficulties that its inventors encountered. But once the prisoners’ arrests are described, the book picks up considerably as it focuses on the political machinations needed to accomplish the prisoner exchange. The book also seems to be very well-researched, as Whittell was able to interview many of the people involved firsthand. I’m not sure it’s a particularly groundbreaking work, but I did find it interesting, and I’m now looking forward to seeing the film version with Tom Hanks.