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Steve’s Notable Books for 2020

Robert B. Parker—The Spenser Novels.
‘Spenser…S.P.E.N.S.E.R….like the English poet. Robert B. Parker wrote 40 novels from 1973 to 2010, featuring his cultivated, wise cracking Boston private investigator, Spenser. The dialogue is a pure delight. Our protagonist out quipping—and, when necessary, out punching—his adversaries. A critic once noted that Parker’s wordplay was so entertaining that he could sometimes get away without including a plot for his hero. Spenser is often aided by both his Harvard psychologist partner, Susan Silverman and his long-time friend, shady associate and gun-for-hire, Hawk. The Spenser novels contain equal measures of hard-boiled action, good natured cynicism, reflections on human foibles and well thought out—but not too complicated—whodunits. Perfect self-isolation reading throughout this blighted year Here are three of Spenser’s outings:
The Godwulf Manuscript ($18): Spenser’s first case. A Boston University hires him to recover a rare, stolen manuscript. His only clue – a radical student with four bullets in his chest.
Hugger Mugger. ($22): Someone’s making death threats in Dixie—against a thoroughbred horse destined to be the next Secretariat. At the owner’s request, Spenser hoofs it down South—where the lies are buzzing…and the dying is easy.
Widow’s Walk ($23) When fifty-one-year-old Nathan Smith, a prominent Boston banker and millionaire, is murdered, Spenser is called in to investigate. Nathan’s young wife, Mary Smith, has a weak alibi, is despised by her peers and has multi million reasons to kill her husband. She needs the best defence money can buy. Spenser soon discovers that Mary’s mysterious past has put his own life in danger.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA
by Amy Shira Teitel ($30)

I started on this book after I binge watched the TV series AWAY in which Space Commander Emma Green (Hillary Swank—excellent as always), leads a multinational crew on our first journey to Mars. Amy Teitel, science journalist and self-described ‘lifelong space history nerd’ (like me), in a smoothly written narrative, reminds us that humankind’s space exploration dreams did not start with either Russia’s Sputnik satellite (1957) or Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ on lunar soil (1969). From German rocket enthusiasts of the 1920s, to the advent of Wernher von Braun, a young engineer who developed the Nazi wartime V2 rocket. After 1945, von Braun (and colleagues) having crossed to the victors, were at the forefront of American spaceflight endeavours—see the Chapter entitled, Nazi Rockets in New Mexico. Decades of bureaucratic in-fighting and personal rivalries between various branches of the US government get their detailed due. The most memorable sections of this book are the vivid, exciting descriptions highlighting lesser known aspects of the early space race. Among these are Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and Joseph Kittinger’s ascent to the stratosphere in the high-altitude balloon programme, Project Manhigh (1955–58). A fascinating book on the history of the preeminent achievement of the 20th Century.

Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family  by Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand  ($35)
Yes. Alright. Read it in a day. It chronicles Harry and Meghan’s relationship from a blind date in July 2016—Meghan was the one, ‘the very first time we met’ says Harry—to the present circumstances of their separation as senior Royals. Written with the couple’s tacit agreement (I presume), as a counterblast to the aggressive ‘media hunting’ of Meghan Markle—ongoing since her and Harry’s relationship became public in October 2016.  It follows the course of their relationship, wedding (2018) and birth of son, Archie (2019). Throughout, the unrelenting race baiting and increasingly toxic media environment serves as background noise to whispered questions made by various Palace ‘insiders’ among others, of the suitability of a biracial, divorced American actress and ‘woman of colour’, as part of the hereditary-bound, Windsor ‘firm’. This book presents Harry and Meghan in an unwaveringly positive light; however, it also serves a serious purpose, especially for those among us who remember the tragic events in Paris on 31 August 1997.

Crucible: The Long End of the Great War and the Birth of a New World 1917-1924 by Charles Emerson ($30)
A chronological, kaleidoscopic, anecdotal history of what the author sees as the 20th Century’s truly transformative years and the origin of our Modern Age. Written in the present tense, it is a vast representation of history as chance, contingency and unforeseeable consequences. The opening Chapter – 1917 – begins with descriptions of: The distraught Russian Romanov Royal family, laying to rest the mutilated body of murdered holy man, Rasputin. In Zurich, would-be revolutionary, Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), applying for a residency permit, gives his profession as ‘lawyer and writer’. His income from ‘journalistic work for a Petrograd publisher’. In America, Lev Bronstein (Trotsky) in exile from Europe, lives in the Bronx, New York. He writes for the Russian socialist magazine (Novy Mir—New World). He frequents a local Jewish restaurant. He does not tip. Pope Benedict XV sends a birthday card to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, enclosing suggestions for a peace proposal. ‘First, we have to win!’ the Warlord scribbles on the Vatican letter. In Berlin, a young physicist, Albert Einstein writes to a friend: ‘Would it not be good for the world if degenerate Europe were to wreck itself totally? All of our exalted technological progress is comparable to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal. The Chinese would do a better job.’
A large list of individuals are followed throughout the next seven years. Among numerous others:  Freud, Rosa Luxemburg, Hitler, Stalin, Woodrow Wilson, Emmeline Pankhurst, André Breton, Henry Ford, Hemingway, Mussolini and Clara Zetkin. A mass of material—the endnotes and sources alone cover 115 pages—is skilfully curated by Australian author Emmerson. A big plum pudding of a book. Start right from the beginning or just dip in. It’s informative and enjoyable reading either way. Stephen Reid