Sunday, January 31, 2021

Review: A Spy in the Struggle

"We're not all from the Bay Area and so goddamn politically enlightened. We don't all have Black Nationalist parents who tell us what the government is really up to. Some people are from  Midwestern towns where everyone watches Fox News and believe what the preacher tells them. Some people are from places where everyone doesn't have a goddamn 'question authority' bumper sticker on their car, from places where you get your ass kicked if you question authority, so you just do what you're told. And it doesn't make them stupid, it just makes them people in a bad situation."

I have a long history with illustrated covers. I hate them, thank you very much. But I took one look at the cover for A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de Leon and I was hooked. Never mind that when it comes to suspense I've never been one to gravitate towards espionage (films yes, books not so much...). Taking advantage of my local library, I took a swing on a new to me author and am happy to report that this was a success.

Yolanda Vance has done everything right. After her preacher father dies when she's very young, she and her single mother hopscotch around - Mom chasing bad relationships, a paycheck, and fliting from one new age guru to the next. Yolanda's dream is to escape her situation and she's your classic pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story. She lands a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school (so long flaky Mom!) and works her way into Harvard Law. She hits Manhattan next, working in corporate law at a prestigious firm until one day the SEC shows up. Yolanda ain't no fool and sure as hell she's not shredding the pile of papers one of the partners shoved into her arms. Yolanda is a survivor and turns whistleblower.

Her firm is big news, and Yolanda's name is now mud in the world of corporate law. A girl has to eat. She didn't come this far to fail. So the whistleblower takes herself and her law degree to the FBI. She's settled in a New Jersey office when she's handpicked to go undercover in Holloway, California. A group of young African-American and Latinx activists who call themselves Red, Black & GREEN! are making trouble for a biotech firm with a big government contract. Yolanda, who went to college in the area, is the FBI's only viable option - never mind she's a lawyer with less than zero undercover experience.

Yolanda is not excited or happy about this assignment and her goal is get in, get out, get back to her comfortable life. But as she reacquaints herself with Holloway, meets a handsome professor on her alma mater's jogging path, and a dead body the cops try to pass off as "just another junkie overdose" turn up - Yolanda realizes there's more going on in Holloway than meets and the eye.  The question is - how far will the government go to protect this biotech firm?

I subscribe to the school of thought that all art is political (in some way, shape or form) it's just some creators embrace it more openly than others.  The immediate echoes in this story are, quite obviously, the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental racism. What saves this book from being a political manifesto or devolving into preaching is the character of Yolanda - who is complicated, nuanced, with a fascinating backstory.  Also, de Leon writes teenagers very well - which gives Yolanda an interesting cast of characters to play off from. She's straddling the line of helpful adult mentoring these kids and FBI agent / lawyer wanting her safe, comfortable life back.

A romance comes into play in the second half and there's a few fairly spicy love scenes - which will likely please romance readers and annoy suspense readers (who generally seem to be annoyed by sex in books in general IMHO).  Naturally Yolanda is lying to everybody in this story and that's going to blow up with Jimmy - who she's starting to have very real feelings for.  It makes for some great Black Moments in the second half.

It took me a few chapters to sink into the writing because de Leon likes to employ chapter breaks and occasionally shift timelines as she delves deeper into Yolanda's past and character.  These flashbacks appear at opportune times and fit into the narrative of what's going on with Yolanda in the present day, at that moment.  But it's a bit like head-hopping (just with timeline - not characters...) and did take a little getting used to.  That said, it largely worked for me.

A final note: this is the first book I've read that mentions COVID. It happens early on when Yolanda attends her first Red, Black & GREEN! meeting and one of the speakers talks about how their community has been more adversely effected by the pandemic than the white suburbanites who drive into Holloway to work at the biotech firm.  This is great - except for the fact that nothing else in this book reflects a post-COVID world at all. There's no mention of masks, Zoom, distance learning (the kids are still "in school"), stores and restaurants are open, people are still congregating at the church where Red, Black & GREEN! meet etc. This reads like the author had the manuscript complete and at the last minute her editor was like, "you need to mention COVID!"  But here's the thing - you can't just blithely mention COVID.  It has completely uprooted peoples' lives.  A passing sentence ain't gonna cut it if you want the story to feel authentic in a post-COVID hellscape.  Much better to just not mention it at all.  Let the reader live the fantasy of a pre-COVID time when we could attend street markets, eat in a restaurant, and not wear a mask constantly.  I get the author wanted this story to feel timely, and for the most part it does. But to bring in COVID requires more extensive rewrites than one sentence towards the beginning of the story.

A misstep (YMMV) but other than that, I liked this book quite a bit. It was compulsively readable, and I stayed up way past my bedtime to plow through the second half.  I'd read this author again in a heartbeat.

Final Grade = B


Jen Twimom said...

Wow! What a lot to digest. First, that cover is spectacular. At first I thought the book was going to be set in the 60s or such, but no... it's current day. I've never really read a book like this, but it sounds interesting and well done. I love the quote you opened with. As for the COVID issue, that would be bothersome, but sounds like you were able to look past it. Thanks for sharing!

Wendy said...

Jen: The mention of COVID really did feel like an afterthought - which was unfortunate - but I enjoyed the rest of it - and that quote I pulled comes near the end of the story when things really blow wide open. So many passages to highlight, so much to choose from.