The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

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I remember a year or so ago when Justin Trudeau was asked a snarky question about quantum computing, and proceeded to explain it in language we could understand…and the whole concept of things being two things at once kind of blew my mind. “Things can be in two places at once. The coin is both heads and tails. The cat is alive and dead. A bit is zero and one. It’s only the act of observing these phenomena that collapses their ambiguous state. ” In The Quantum Spy, the race is on between the U.S. and China to build the first quantum computer.

It’s a great setup for David Ignatius of the Washington Post to entertain us with a 21st century spy thriller…and, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for this honest review.

Early on, we meet John Vandel, long-time CIA operative, who is wise to what it takes to survive in the Agency: “He wrote an eyes-only memo later that morning for the national security adviser to cover himself. The rest, he didn’t want to know. The Director was a former member of Congress. Letting the staff do the dirty work was a way of life.”

Some years ago, an Army Ranger named Harris Chang saved Vandel’s life in Iraq. When Vandel thanked him, Chang said “You would have done it for me,” to which Vandel replied “No fucking way.” This tells us quite a bit about both men, and as the story alternates locations including China, Singapore, Washington, D.C., Iraq and Seattle, we follow their efforts to beat China in the race for quantum computing superiority.

Chang goes to a quantum research lab that has been compromised by a suspected Chinese informant. There is a hunt for the mole who may have penetrated the highest levels of the Agency, and things hop around, with a bit of uncertainty that parallels the quantum state: there are leaks, but do the leaks expose real secrets, or are they false trails meant to deceive the Chinese? Chang finds that there is a thin line between loyalty and betrayal, as he follows the path of the investigation wherever it leads.

Sometimes techno-thrillers can be daunting, with details that are beyond the casual reader of spy novels. In this one, Ignatius has done a great job of combining a twisting plot with self-revelation that parallels the paradox of quantum computing. Chang is the model of a conflicted spy who has dealt with racism and bigotry his entire life, and who faces his own duality as he works to solve the puzzle surrounding the mole.

Spy novel fans, computer buffs, mystery lovers, and anyone who likes a plot with lots of twists and well-developed characters will love this one. Five stars.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

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I have loved reading Lisa See’s books, particularly Shanghai Girls, Dragon Bones and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of her latest, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, thanks to Scribner and NetGalley.

We meet Li-Yan when she is a girl living in a remote village in the mountains of Yunnan province. Life is hard for the families in the ethnic Akha minority as they harvest tea and follow routines and rituals that have been ingrained in their lives for generations. Li-Yan is the only daughter, living in a family compound with her parents and her three brothers and their wives, and she has an aptitude for learning that is fostered by her teacher.

Li-Yan falls in love with San-Pa, who leaves her to make a life for them outside the village. She learns she is pregnant while he is gone and gives birth to a baby girl (which tradition deems a “human reject”). Because she cannot bring herself to kill the baby, she wraps the baby in a blanket (tucking a tea cake alongside her) and walks for miles to a village where she abandons her beloved baby, hoping someone will care for her.

There is an incredible amount of history and detail as the story follows Li-yan’s effort as she grows up to enter the world beyond the gates of her village. It is an amazing journey with memorable characters and more than you will probably ever want to know about tea!

Meanwhile, her daughter is adopted by a loving family in the U.S. and is raised in a life that contrasts sharply with Li-Yan’s. An impressive amount of research was done by See, who grew up in a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles. Themes of international adoptions, ethnic minorities in China (specifically the Akha people), and the history and cultural significance surrounding tea (farming, production and consumption) all contribute to the story.

As one might expect in a book by Lisa See, the main female characters are strong, clever women whose familial bonds overlay their experiences as individuals. It won’t be a surprise that Li-Yan’s desire to search for the daughter she gave up is recounted in chapters alternating with the story of Haley, the girl adopted by Americans who longs to learn about her roots and birth family.

As noted, there is more than I really wanted to know about tea, but it was an integral part of the story. I appreciate learning about Chinese history and culture in such an entertaining way, and my only critique is that the circumstances which make the resolution of the story feel so positive are (for me) bordering on “too good to be true,” as both Li-Yan and Haley are living ideal lives surrounded by perfect people and circumstances.

It’s a powerful story, well-researched and affecting on many levels. I loved the experience of reading it, but the ending reminded me that it was complete fiction – so four stars.

BTW, Lisa See will be at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event March 23, 2017.