“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for October, 2015

Review: The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks

Pirate HunterIn the annals of piratical history, the name of William Kidd is prominent next to those of Edward Teach and Anne Bonney. In this excellent piece of investigative history, Richard Zacks makes it clear that, for all his faults, Captain Kidd got a bad rap, whereas a contemporary who was an unrepentant gangster of the high seas thrived.

Hired by four British noblemen at the instigation of a hustler named Robert Livingston to sail to the Indian Ocean to hunt pirates, Kidd wasn’t even out of the Atlantic before he ran afoul of one of the worst examples of a British naval officer, who promptly (and with the eager support of the East India Company) declared him a pirate. When, months later, Kidd’s crew mutinied and joined the aforementioned unrepentant gangster for a real campaign of piracy, Kidd’s subsequent actions to survive were interpreted by everyone in authority as further evidence of his crimes.

Mr. Zacks has a thorough grasp of both the history and the cultures in which his vindication of William Kidd takes place, referring to it in one instance as “a time of much religion and little charity.” He describes the world in which social position and money were as great an advantage as they are today with detail that is at once excruciating and as fascinating as the proverbial train wreck.

That Kidd’s story could be said to parallel that of any number of possibly innocent men currently held in our own prison at Guantanamo is telling. Held incommunicado, the proof of his innocence “misfiled” and not found until two hundred years later, his very hanging botched, Kidd still managed to cling to his honor and his dignity (with one or two lapses) in the face of political machinations and royal ass-covering. If you love history, and especially if you’re fascinated by the world of pirates, this is a book that belongs on your shelf.

Review: The Incidental Spy by Libby Fischer Hellmann

First, I must apologize to Ms. Hellmann for the lateness of this review. I can only plead work and conventions. And laundry.

When it comes to the plight of Jewish refugees during the Second World War, the focus tends to be on their escape or attempts to do so. In Ms. Hellmann’s new novella from The Red Herring Press, Lena Bentheim has reached safety in Chicago, but at the cost of the rest of her family and her beloved Josef. Through a combination of luck and determination, she lands a job as a secretary in the U. of Chicago physics department, falls in love and has a son.

The department has taken on a new top-secret project, and Lena’s husband is in the front row of scientists working on it. Then, Karl dies in a traffic accident, and Lena must return to work. The department welcomes her back. Life is a struggle, but she’ll do what she must for her son, Max.

Until the night Max goes missing. Suddenly, Lena is forced to spy on her coworkers, supplying the Nazi regime with information on the experiments in atomic fission that will become known as the Manhattan Project.

It’s impossible not to want to jump in and help Lena. A stranger in a country where her religion and her country of origin are suspect, where she has no one she can trust or turn to, and where the life of her child hangs on choices she must make against her will and her conscience, she is a character one can embrace without a qualm. Ms. Hellmann places her in a seemingly impossible situation where she must either find the courage to battle her blackmailers or accept the treason they demand she perform for them. The suspense in this superb novella is more truly in that internal struggle than in the outer one of spies and traitors.

The Incidental Spy is available in print and, shortly, in ebook on Amazon. I received an advance review copy from Ms. Hellmann for review purposes. I’m delighted I did.