Soviet Spotlight: Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland

Recently, I mentioned in my review of Jenny Smith’s first novel The Sultan’s Seal that even through I wasn’t overwhelming satisfied with her debut novel, I didn’t want to give up on Smith as a novelist. I’ve seen writers improve over time. In that same review, I gave the example of Alan Furst. In my opinion, the later novels of Furst’s Night Soldier series are superior to his earlier ones. Therefore, I’m more than willing to explore the later novels of Smith’s Kamil Pasha series since I have a feeling the quality of her work has improved as she’s learned from her experience as a writer. Just as the old cliché goes, practice makes perfect.

This belief of mine that novelists can, and do improve upon the quality if their work through practice and hard work was reinforced recently. In a round about way it once again has something to do with Alan Furst. Not long ago I praised a particular novelist as one Alan Furst fans could also embrace. That novelist is Sam Eastland

I found Eastland’s Archive 17: A Novel of Suspense the kind of novel Alan Furst fans could love. Set in the USSR during the first year of WWII, it’s the fast-paced story of a former Tsarist special investigator who’s been ordered by Stalin to find a long hidden supply of imperial gold. The novel’s main character Inspector Pekkala, a mature, intelligent and daring figure who’s also an ethic outsider, resembles many if not all of Furst’s protagonists. With the action taking place in the USSR of 1939, Furst fans would surely find favor with Eastland’s choice of time and place. After reading Archive 17, I’m thinking if you love Alan Furst, then Eastland is your man.

After enjoying Archive 17, I went in search of the more books from Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala series and I’m happy to report that my local public library has a number of them in stock. Upon discovering this, I selected the first novel in the series, Eye of the Red Tsar: A Novel of Suspense. Just like I did with Archive 17, I burned through Eye of the Red Tsar in what seemed like mere days. However, unlike Archive 17, I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. But just like with Jenny’s Smith’s Seal of the Sultan I was not left completely disappointed. Far from it. With Smith’s novel, I merely suspected that her later novels could be better. After reading Archive 17 prior to Eye of the Red Tsar seeing the difference in quality between the two novels I knew for sure that Eastland has improved over this career as a novelist.

Published in 2010, Eye of the Red Tsar begins in 1929, roughly 10 years before the events described in Archive 17. Pekkala has been freed from the Gulag on Stalin’s orders in hopes he can solve a trio of painful and lingering mysteries: exactly who ordered the execution of the Romanovs, where are the bodies hidden and is there any truth to the rumors that one member of the royal family escaped harm and his still alive. In search of answers Pekkala must dive not only into the wilds of Soviet Eurasia, but also that nation’s painfully guarded past.

Even though I didn’t like Eye of the Red Tsar as much as I did Archive 17, I’m wishing I would have started with this novel because it’s the first book in the series, and therefore contains a lot of Pekkala’s backstory. Just like Archive 17, I found it fast-paced and entertaining. But my major gripe with Eye of the Red Tsar is its ending. Unfortunately, I can’t give any details without throwing out a spoiler or two. Let’s just say I found the novel’s thrilling conclusion a tad flawed and leave it at that.

But please let us keep in mind the bigger and more important things. Writers can, and do improve as they hone their craft. I’ve seen this with Alan Furst, and now with Sam Eastland. In addition, I’m hoping to see it with Jenny Smith. And even with me being left a slightly disappointed with this one particular novel by Sam Eastland, he’s still a novelist Alan Furst fans can enjoy.

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In Paradise: A Novel by Peter Matthiessen

9781594633522_p0_v2_s260x420Before passing away last April at the ripe old age of 86, Peter Matthiessen had lived a life most writers could only dream of. After graduating from Yale, he moved to Paris and hung out with American literary icons William Styron and James Baldwin. While in Paris he co-founded with George Plimpton and a few others the esteemed literary journal The Paris Review. Over his lengthy career Matthiessen wrote over 30 books, with two of them adapted to film. He’s also probably the only writer to win the National Book Award three times, once for fiction and twice for nonfiction. He was also a notable environmentalist and proponent of Native American rights. On top of it, while living in Paris and writing for The Paris Review he was secretly a CIA agent. But I’m embarked to say I’d never heard of this guy until three weeks ago.

Yes, it was only three weeks ago at the public library when I came across a copy of his final book, In Paradise: A Novel. Seeing it was a novel about Auschwitz and knowing that the former Nazi death camp  was constructed in Poland, I figured I could read the book for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. So, even though I was sadly ignorant of the novel’s accomplished author, I took a chance and grabbed it. After starting In Paradise and succumbing to a few distractions which kept me from finishing it sooner than I should have I eventually finished it. While I didn’t end up liking In Paradise as much as I would have hoped, I still came away from Matthiessen’s last novel with a deep respect for late author’s ability to write. But more importantly, to write well.

In Paradise tells the story of a diverse group of international characters, who in 1996 have gathered at Auschwitz as a part of a spiritual retreat. While most have come in search of meaning and “closure” concerning one of the 20th century’s most horrific episodes, Polish-American academic Clements Olin has come to former death camp with his own, slightly more personal reasons. But because this is a diverse group of many nationalities, world views and religious convictions, quite quickly tensions arise and tempers flair.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second part, when Olin’s infatuation with a young Polish nun seems to overpower the storyline a bit. But still even with that, I found Matthiessen’s storytelling direct, while at the same time nuanced. In his world human beings are never simple and at best flawed. Speaking from my own personal experience, I couldn’t agree more with the late Peter Matthiessen.

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Soviet Spotlight: Archive 17 by Sam Eastland

After falling in love with the historical spy novels of Alan Furst I wondered if there was anything else out there I could read that would be in the same vein. It’d be great find thrilling a novel or two, preferable a series of them, set in Europe during the years leading up to or during the Second World War. According to Goodreads it looks like there’s some stuff that could fit the bill. But even with those helpful suggestions, I haven’t been actively looking for anything to supplement my passionate consumption of Alan Furst novels. Then, last Saturday afternoon while wandering the shelves at the public library I came across a copy of Archive 17: A Novel of Suspense by Sam Eastand. Intrigued by what I found, I proceeded to read the book’s jacket blurb. How could I resist a novel about a former Czarist special investigator who’s been “enlisted” by Stalin in 1939 to solve a twenty old mystery. Thinking that Archive 17 could be just the book I needed to satisfy my Alan Furst-like of craving I optimistically grabbed it. After whipping through it in mere days I knew I’d made the right decision.

From what I can tell, Archive 17 is the third book in the five book Inspector Pekkala series. In this particular book in the series, Pekkala has been ordered by Stalin to go undercover in a Soviet labor camp in hopes of finding the secret location of a long-lost supply of gold that vanished during the early days of the Russian Civil War. Returning to the infamous Gulag camp of Borodok where he was once a prisoner, Pekkala must gain the confidence of a small band of imprisoned diehard Czarists who he thinks will lead him to the gold. But to do so, he must first survive not only harshness of Siberia but also the camp’s brutal commander and its cut-throat inmates. Of course, with Stalin as your overlord, your safety and well-being are never assured.

Archive 17 is a lot of fun. I found it fast-paced, smart and entertaining. If you’re an Alan Furst fan like me, you’ll have an enjoyable time reading this second book in Eastland’s series. Those same fans will probably also agree that Inspector Pekkala makes a fine Furstian hero: early middle-aged, intelligent, an ethnic outsider (he’s a Finn in the Russian-dominated USSR), resourceful, heroic without being reckless and honorable. Therefore, with all that in mind look for more of Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala’s novels to be featured on my blog.

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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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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