When I went to Crime Bake (the time I nearly got my face ripped off by an escalator), I had the pleasure of meeting an author named Alex Carr, while having breakfast on Sunday morning. She seemed like a really nice person, so when I noticed she was on a panel, I decided to attend it.
Alex told the most amazing stories about her life. She had lived in all these different countries around the world. She had picked fruit and vegetables with migrant workers. She’d lived on a kibbutz. I was so awed by her, I have to admit I was slightly envious.
After the panel, I went right to the bookseller’s table and found one of her novels: The Accidental American. Once I’d read that book, I was hooked on her writing. So, I read another one. The next Alex Carr novel was The Prince of Bagram Prison.
Then, I read her previous works, which were written under the name of Jenny Siler. These novels were totally kick-ass suspense stories, and I loved them!
I submit the following reviews (as originally run on another blog) in honor of this great author, who has inspired me so.
‘An Accidental American’ is an Awesome Spy Thriller
(review originally posted on December 13, 2008)
Some genres are automatically associated with certain authors. If I say “tough private eye novel,” several names might come to mind — Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, Dashiell Hammett or Sara Paretsky, to name a few. If I say “Western,” you might think of Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. But if I say “spy novel,” most people are bound to think of one author in particular — John LeCarre. (Ian Fleming doesn’t count — he wrote adventure/fantasy novels with a spy protagonist, not the complex works infused with moral ambiguity that are modern spy novels.)
From now on, when I hear “spy novel,” I’ll also think of Alex Carr.
AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN is about Nicole Blake, who’s trying to live a quiet life on a mountain farm in France after doing time for counterfeiting in a women’s prison in Marseille. Her contented existence is disrupted by the appearance of John Valsamis, a U.S. intelligence operative who wants Nicole to find her former lover, Rahim Ali, because he’s believed to be a terrorist. With a few photos of terrorist bombing victims (and one of Ali meeting with a known terrorist), Valsamis persuades Nicole to help him. But, of course, Valsamis is not telling her everything–and Nicole is going to find that out the hard way.
I’ve never been one for highly-descriptive prose, but this book gave me a new appreciation for good description and how it can be used to set a book’s tone and create almost unbearable suspense at times. I also particularly liked the non-linear narrative, which shifted perspectives in a kaleidoscopic manner and moved back and forth in time (once or twice, I got confused — for the most part, it was smoothly executed). Carr’s storytelling skills are exemplary — the various pieces of the narrative are layered on like brush strokes until the whole picture finally emerges. The story manages to provide fascinating character studies and be an engrossing page-turner — packed with the kind of double- and triple-crosses we’ve come to expect from the spy genre (not to mention the unearthing of long-buried family secrets).
Most of the story is told in third person — with the exception of Nicole’s part, told in first person (a device that makes us identify with her all the more). And, though the “bad guys” are anything but lovable, they aren’t caricatures — in fact, they’re all too human.
Apart from flashbacks, the action takes place shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq following 9/11 (mention is made of Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N. Security Council, WMDs, etc.) and the story skillfully combines history (both recent and not-so-recent) with fiction — a process Carr discusses in a postscript.
So, when you think “spy novel,” think of Alex Carr. I hope this book will be only one of many to make her an icon of the genre.
‘The Prince of Bagram Prison’: A Time-Shifting Tale of Intrigue
(review originally posted on January 13, 2009)
After reading Alex Carr’s first novel (at least, the first under that name), AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN, I was anxious to get my hands on her latest, THE PRINCE OF BAGRAM PRISON. Feeling slight trepidation that the first amazing novel written under that pseudonym might be a hard act to top, I nevertheless got hold of a copy, as soon as I could.
I’m happy to say that this book only deepened my respect for Carr and increased my devotion to her work.
This isn’t to say that THE PRINCE OF BAGRAM PRISON is a novel that everyone will embrace. As in her previous book, Carr engages in a good deal of narrative time shifting. And, unlike AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN, in which different people tended to show up at different times, the time shifts in this book tend to involve the same people throughout — so it’s easy to get confused about what year it is and where you are exactly when the shifts take place. But if you pay attention, the effort will pay off.
Like her previous book, Carr is dealing in the shadowy world of espionage — this time, though, she focuses on the post-9/11 world (flashing back, now and then, to the final throes of the Vietnam War). We meet Kat Caldwell, an Army intelligence reservist, who’s called away from her teaching post at a Virginia military college to help locate a young boy — a CIA informant — who’s disappeared. Kat is enlisted to aid a not-so-nice (to really understate the matter) intelligence operative in this quest, because she grew to know the young man while interrogating him at Bagram Prison.
The meaning of the book’s title and all the other details are best discovered in the reading. So I’ll just say this: Carr’s writing in this book is as evocative and insightful as her previous effort. Her characters are complex and (depending on who we’re talking about) sad, endearing, disgusting, pathetic, upright or amoral — often times, a combination of these traits. The plot, though complex and hard to follow at first, is constructed painstakingly. And, even if you lose the narrative thread now and then, the sheer beauty of the prose more than makes up for it.
And, as you draw nearer to the conclusion, a big payoff awaits, in terms of the story’s building suspense (which kept me turning the pages late into the night) and satisfying resolution — at least, with respect to one character. For another, things seem less resolved than to be just simmering down. Carr apparently likes a little ambiguity in her story endings. When we’re talking about the unsettling realm of espionage, that does seem appropriate.
Readers of the first Alex Carr book will recognize one major character from that story and a passing reference to a minor one in this book.
As in the first book, Carr writes a moving epilogue in this one, in which she talks about her past and how it shaped the creation of one of the characters.
Now, having finished both Alex Carr novels, I guess I have to check out her work as Jenny Siler. Without trepidation or hesitation.
I’ll post my reviews of the novels published under the name Jenny Siler at a later time.