Turkish Delights: The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White

A few years ago I mentioned on my blog that I’ve had a long time interest in the Ottoman Empire and its modern successor the Republic of Turkey. I’m not exactly sure when and how I developed this fascination, but it might have something to do with a book I found in the public library almost two decades ago. Besides serving up a very readable and straight-up history of the Ottoman Empire, I remember few additional details except it was published back in the 80s or even 70s by a British author. Sadly, both the title of book and its author I’ve long since forgotten. But my interest in Turkey remains, and as a result I’m always on the lookout for good books about Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.

A few weeks ago I was back at the public library combing the shelves for who knows what when I came across a copy of Jenny White’s 2006 novel The Sultan’s Seal. Even though I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, its beautiful cover art sucked me in. So as you could probably guess, I grabbed it.

Set in the late nineteenth century, The Sultan’s Seal begins with the discovery of the naked body of a young Englishwoman. Upon inspection, a special pendant is found around her neck linking her to the deposed sultan. Soon magistrate Kemil Pasha is called upon to solve her murder and before long he begins to find similarities between it and an earlier murder that was never solved. As his investigation progresses, he begins to suspect both murders are part of a larger conspiracy, a conspiracy involving those at the highest levels of government. Will justice ultimately be served or will powerful forces much greater than Kemil squash his investigation?

At first I loved The Sultan’s Seal. I was immediately sucked in by the novel’s premise and quickly grew to like its protagonist Kemil Pasha. Set during a period of history when the Ottoman Empire was painfully coming to grips with both its fading power and the pressures and challenges of the modern age I couldn’t have asked for more from a novel about Turkey. Unfortunately however, Jenny’s White’s debut novel feels a bit, well, like a debut novel. Things sometimes felt a bit rushed and I thought there were a few loose ends that were not wrapped up. It also ends abruptly, or at least too abruptly for my tastes anyway. Fortunately, her knowledge of Turkish history and culture felt impressive and it shows throughout her novel.

But I’m willing to give her another chance. She has two additional novels in this series and I’m willing to read both The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief. If I’ve learned anything over the last half decade of blogging about books it’s that writers can improve with time and experience. (Case in point, I’ve enjoyed Alan Furst’s later novels more than his earlier ones. And he’s quickly become one of my favorite novelists.) So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more novels by Jenny White featured on this blog.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Turkey

Immigrant Stories: Day After Night by Anita Diamant

Believe it or not, the first book by Anita Diamant I read was not The Red Tent. Unlike just about everyone, my introduction into her writing was her 2003 essay collection Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship and Other Leaps of Faith. After enjoying Pitching My Tent, one would think that the second book of Diamant’s I would read would be The Red Tent. Recently, I turned my back on conventional wisdom and read not The Red Tent, but her 2009 work of historical fiction Day After Night. It was one of those books I found at the library and almost didn’t grab. But when I took into account both Diamant’s reputation as an excellent writer and the novel’s setting in an internment camp in post-war British Palestine I found it hard to resist Day After Night. So I didn’t. Feeling optimistic  but with modest expectations I checked it out and headed home.

It took my a while to get through Day After Night because I was reading several other books at the same time. Once I did however finally concentrate on reading only Day After Night I soon finished it. While it didn’t rock my world and make me wanna add it to my personal “Best Of” list for 2015, generally I liked it.

It looks like Day After Night is inspired by a true story. In the fall of 1945 there was mass break-out by over 200 Jewish refugees who had been detained at the Atlit internment camp in British Palestine. In telling this story, Diamant focuses on four of the camp’s internees. All four are women and Holocaust survivors. Understandably, considering the horrors they endured, they survived but did not do so unscathed. Not only must also repair their shattered lives, they also need to live as free women. Leaving the camp would be first step in this needed process. But who will help them escape? And how?

The Book Date’s Full House Reading Challenge has a category entitled “Outstanding Hero or Heroine.” I’m going to count Day After Night under this category because it has not one but a number of heroines who acted heroically. And considering all of them survived the Holocaust, this to me anyway makes them all the more heroic.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

2014 European Reading Challenge Wrap Up

Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Each year Gilion the host encourages participants to read at least one book by a European author or at least one book set in a European country. Because her challenge is a kind of “tour” each book must be by a different author and set in a different country. While the top participation level is the “Deluxe Entourage” of five books, each year she awards a prize to the participant who read the most qualifying books. In past years she’s also awarded honorable mentions to participants. (I’m proud to report that last year for the challenge I read 21 books and was awarded an honorable mention.) I also like this challenge because the host and I live in the same city of Portland, Oregon USA. I’m probably the only book blogger who’s taken part in a reading challenge that’s hosted by a blogger who lives across town! (I keep thinking some day I might bump into her at a literary event.)

While composing this post I did a quick tally and if my records are correct (never a given, trust me), it looks like I read 20 books representing 21 different European countries. Not a bad effort if I say so myself! On top of all that, I read a number of books that were set in, or about multiple European countries. These I didn’t count as part of challenge, but featured them as part of my Pan-European Lives series. (A half-dozen of these happened to be novels by Alan Furst.)

Looking back on what I read, with the exception of two, all are works of fiction. At first I was surprised by this since I’ve always considered myself more of a nonfiction reader. However, over the last couple of years I’ve been reading more fiction. So with that in mind, I really should not have been that surprised. (By the way, one of those two pieces of nonfiction, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 made my year-end list of best nonfiction.) Of that array of fiction, The Expats (Luxembourg) was my favorite English language novel read in 2014 and The Prisoner of Heaven, (Spain) was my favorite piece of translated fiction.

After enjoying the 2014 European Challenge so much I eagerly signed up for the 2015 edition. Not only am I looking forward to taking part in the challenge, but also excited to see how it complements a few of the other reading challenges I’ll be doing in 20015 like the Global Reading Challenge, Around the World Reading Challenge, Where are You Reading Challenge, Full House Reading Challenge, Books in Translation Reading Challenge, British History Reading Challenge, and the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. I can’t wait to get started!

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir

9781934824351_p0_v2_s260x420Participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge keeps me on the lookout for books from across Europe. While I’d like to boast that my tastes are fairly broad when it comes to what I seek, I especially like books about or from some of the smaller nations of Europe like Croatia, Luxembourg and Bosnia. Of all the smaller European countries, perhaps Iceland has fascinated me the most. However, thanks to its rather small population, finding books by Icelandic authors isn’t what I would consider an easy task. So you can imagine how I felt a few weeks ago when, at the library,  I came across a novel by an Icelandic author. Published in 2012 by Open Letter (the same people who brought us 18% Gray by the Bulgarian writer Zachary Karabashliev), Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir is only the second novel by an Icelandic author I’ve ever laid eyes on. (The other, Reply to a Letter from Helga by Bergsveinn Birgisson, I reviewed last year.) Happy to find something from Iceland, of course I grabbed Ómarsdóttir’s novel. Being a short novel just under 200 pages it didn’t take me long to read it. You’re probably wondering what I thought of it. I guess the best way to answer that question is to say I found Children in Reindeer Woods a bit, um, odd.

The story itself is a bit odd. Set in an unnamed, somewhat rural country with a vague Latin American feel, the novel begins with a bloody wartime massacre of a children’s residential care facility. The sole survivor is a young girl named Billie, who rather quickly forms a friendship of sorts with the soldier who did the killing. Sick of army life and wanting to live the simple life of a farmer, the soldier hangs up his fatigues and embraces his new-found vocation. Soon the two become unlikely friends, settle down and begin running the farm attached to the Reindeer Woods children’s home. Along the way they encounter a few quirky people, bicker with each other and keep themselves company with philosophical chats.

But like I said, it’s an odd book. The plot is unusual. Even though the story is told from the perspective of a third person, much of that comes from Billie’s perspective which feels pretty unreliable, or at the very least childlike. It’s a book that I wish I’d enjoyed more, given my fascination for Iceland. But alas, it was not meant to be. Perhaps the next piece of Icelandic literature I encounter will be a bit more to my liking.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction

Expo 58: A Novel by Jonathan Coe

As I spend more time online, I’m starting to discover books that I might never have discovered had I relied solely on more traditional sources like print media, word of mouth and the public library. One such book that came to my attention thanks to the wonders of the Internet is Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58: A Novel. I first leaned of Coe’s novel last summer, when an icon of it popped up on Goodreads, probably in response to a search I did for The Zhivago Affair. Since the 2014 novel is set in Brussels, Belgium during the 1958 World’s Fair, I figured it might serve as a suitable book for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. However, with a towering stack of library books piled at the side of my bed I wasn’t in a big hurry to add another book to the mix. But as well all know, the European Reading Challenge has a funny way of inspiring me. So about a month or so ago I placed a reserve on Expo 58 through my public library and waited for my chance to read it. And when it became available I pushed everything else aside and dived into it. After breezing through it in what felt like mere days I’m glad I took a chance on a novel that from aside seeing briefly mentioned on Goodreads, I knew very little about.

Expo 58 tells the story of Thomas Foley, a public relations man for the British government who finds himself assigned to his nation’s pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair. Chosen to oversee the pavilion’s working replica of an authentic British pub because Foley’s late father was a pub-owner and his mother is of Belgian heritage, he reluctantly accepts the assignment knowing by doing so he’ll spend the next six months away from his wife and their infant daughter. But after being visited several times by representatives of Britain’s intelligence services he wonders if there’s more to his new posting than he’s officially been told. On top of things, he’s begins to see his new posting as welcomed respite to a marriage that might not be as fulfilling as he’d like it to be. And if that couldn’t complicate things enough, immediately upon his arrival in Belgium, Foley’s finds himself attracted to a beautiful, young Belgian hostess who apparently feels the same way about him. Then there’s the charming Soviet “journalist” with movie star looks who keeps dropping by the pub asking questions, buying drinks and romancing the pretty young American spokesmodel who demonstrates modern vacuum cleaners over at the US pavilion.

Expo 58 is very enjoyable novel. It’s written so well it reads almost effortlessly. I found it charmingly British, yet never stuffy. It’s a spy novel, but with comic and romantic elements. It’s a clever book too, with no shortage of mystery and intrigue. And like any good story, there’s a bit of sadness and sense of loss thrown in for good measure.

I’m happy to report say that Expo 58: A Novel is a lot of fun and thus easy for me to recommend. I’m also happy to report that last week, while grocery shopping I encountered a brewery representative dispensing samples. I soon learned that much to my surprise, Ninkasi Brewing has released a new Belgian-style ale named, appropriately Expo 58. What a marvelous pairing this beer must make with the novel of the same name.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, Fiction, History

About Time I Read It: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

I have a co-worker who reads a TON of fiction. (You think I read a lot of stuff, I’m nothing compared to this guy.) A few years ago he raved about a novel with the odd title of The Tiger’s Wife. Probably because of that unusual title, it stuck in my memory. As my curiosity grew, I read a few reviews of The Tiger’s Wife and learned the setting for Téa Obreht’s 2011 novel is somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. Realizing I might be able to read it as part of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, I vowed to give the book a shot, should I ever come across a copy at my local public library. Then recently, during a one of those weekend library visits I spotted several copies of The Tiger’s Wife. Taking a chance, I grabbed one. Looking back, I think I did the right thing. For a young writer’s first novel, it ain’t too shabby.

Because of the novel’s rather complex nature, the plot isn’t easy to briefly summarize. But for convenience sake, The Tiger’s Wife tells the story of a young doctor somewhere in the former Yugoslavia who’s forced to reflect on her lifelong relationship with her grandfather. Out of that reflection comes a dreamlike story weaving accounts of love, loss, war, politics and family.

The Tiger’s Wife intrigued me in a number of ways. One, as I mentioned earlier, it’s set somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, but the identity of the former republic is never revealed. (My guess is it’s Serbia, but I could be wrong.) Obreht’s choice to keep the locale nameless, and therefore a little mysterious (same literary technique Matthew Olshan employed for his possibly set in Iraq novel Marshland) seems like the right one for a novel with a magical realist feel to it. Two, speaking of magical realism, by blending more objective storytelling with legend and fantasy-like elements, The Tiger’s Wife feels like something from the pen of Garcia Marquez. Thirdly, my inner historian enjoyed how the narrative shifted across history, ranging from the Ottoman Empire to World War II to the 90s Balkan conflicts to the present and back again. But what I liked the most about The Tiger’s Wife is its depth. Specifically, the depth of those legends and the characters’ personal histories.

It looks like many readers had problems with the novel’s sometimes disjointed structure. To be fair, I did find The Tiger’s Wife a bit challenging at times. However, for all the reasons mentioned in the above paragraph, I did not walk away from Obreht’s novel disappointed. And let’s all remember this is Obreht’s first novel. My guess is even her biggest critics admit her novel is full of promise. Looking to the future, I fully expect great things from this gifted young novelist.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History

Immigrant Stories: 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev

I’ve mentioned in a few of my earlier posts that I have a soft spot for flawed protagonists who manage to do well in spite of themselves. Crazy thing is I haven’t actively sought out books staring these kind of characters. But for whatever reason or reasons they keep falling into my lap. The latest one to cross my path is Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray. Originally published in his native Bulgaria back in 2008, it went on to win a pair of awards including Bulgarian novel of the year. Thankfully, for Western readers an English language edition was published by Open Letter in early 2013. I stumbled across a copy of 18% Gray during one of my weekend public library visits and was inspired to read it thanks to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Not knowing a single thing about the book or its author, I grabbed it only because I could use a piece of Bulgarian fiction for the challenge. But fortunately for me, I got lucky. I was pleasantly surprised by Karabashliev’s novel. And let’s be serious – how often does one find a book by a Bulgarian author?

18% Gray tells the story of Zack, Southern California-dwelling Bulgarian immigrant who’s found himself in a bit of a predicament. Depressed after his wife has left him and hating both his dead-end job and the boss that comes with it, Zack slips across the border into nearby Tijuana for a little adult-oriented R and R. What starts as a little bar-hopping soon degenerates into a huge drunken bender. By the end of his alcohol-fueled misadventure he’s inadvertant stopped a drug-related murder, beat-up a pair of total strangers, stolen a van and found himself in possession of a duffel bag of high-grade marijuana. Zack then sets off on a cross-country journey to NYC in hopes of selling his illicit loot for a handsome price.

I enjoyed 18% Gray. Even with all the flashbacks such as former life in Bulgaria, his college days in the US and his overall frustrations with living in the states, the action keeps coming. And above all, it’s funny. Zack is a bit of a loser, but he’s not stupid or mean. Deserted by his wife and lamenting his mediocre life, Zack just wants to unload the weed, make a huge pile of cash and go on to be the successful photographer he’s always wanted to be. But before that can happen, he must arrive safely in New York with his precious cargo intact. And that won’t be easy.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by 18% Gray. I have no reservations recommending it to readers seeking a little adventure and more than a few chuckles. Feel free to give it a shot.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, International Crime