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Llonya "Llonya" (Virginia Beach, Virginia)

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From the Land of the Moon
From the Land of the Moon

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, 26 Mar. 2011
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable"

So says Juliet to Romeo, and, as hinted at by Juliet, love does prove variable and more than a bit surreal in Milena Agus' novella, "From the Land of the Moon". When I choose to sit down and read a book from cover to cover it means one of two things: it is a short book; and/or it is one that gets to me from the opening pages. In this case, both are applicable. I picked the book up because the publisher, Europa Editions, has a penchant for finding excellent books that have not yet seen their way into an English translation. I sat down in the bookstore and started reading. I didn't stop until I was almost finished (and running late) and went home and finished it.

Translated from Italian, "From the Land of the Moon" gives us the story of the life of a Sardinian woman as seen through the eyes of her granddaughter. A handsome woman, but unwed, at age 30 (in 1943) she seems destined for the life of a spinster. But fate, and an arranged marriage to a widower, intervenes. The marriage seems at first to be loveless and doomed to be childless but a rather striking decision by the seemingly unloved wife and trip to a mainland sanitarium to be treated for kidney stones (that seem to cause her regular miscarriages) changes her life forever.

As the woman's life is uncovered, layer by layer I was struck by how each revelation surprised me. The surprises weren't bizarre by any stretch but they did challenge the perceptions I developed as the story developed. It also struck me that the story was so much more than a story of a woman's life. It was a story about art and music and literature and its place in a society that does not on its surface seem to provide a hospitable home for it. By the time the last layer was revealed I was no longer surprised that I couldn't predict what would come next. I was touched by how the story ended.

I have no hesitation about recommending this book.

Day of the Oprichnik
Day of the Oprichnik
by Vladimir Sorokin
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head, 17 Mar. 2011
This review is from: Day of the Oprichnik (Hardcover)
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup And looking up, I noticed I was late." I then proceeded to put a severed dog's head on my red, government-issued, Chinese-manufactured Mercedov car and spent the rest of the day killing enemies of the state, assaulting their wives, sending their children to orphanages, ingesting a hallucinogenic fish, before retiring to a plush bath-house for an orgy that gives new meaning to the term `organs of the state'.

And that, in essence, is the day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga set out in Vladimir Sorokin's profane, vulgar, funny, weird, chrome-wheeled fuel injected stepping out over the line "Day of the Oprichnik".

Set in Russia in 2028 this story has a decidedly dystopian bent in a fashion similar to Moscow 2042. But Sorokin's near-futuristic society represents a sort of mutant amalgamation of 500 years of the worst aspects of Russian and Soviet life. No longer ruled by the Soviets (the "Red Period") or the cowboy capitalist oligarchs (the "White Period") of the immediate post-Soviet era, Russia is once again ruled by an all-powerful Tsar. Russian political life is dominated by the Tsar and its soul is governed by a newly ascendant Orthodox Church. Andrei is an Oprichnik, which represents the re-creation of Russia's first "KGB", an organization created by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th-centyury. The Oprichniki of Ivan's time tortured and killed the Tsar's enemies, real and imagined, dressed in black robes and wandered around carrying the severed head's of dogs in order to sniff out treason. In Sorokin's 2028 version the Oprichniki still dress in black but they mount their dogs' heads on their government issued cars.

At the same time, various aspects of life in 2028 call to mind the era of Stalin and the worst excesses of the Soviet state. Puritanical social structures and the zealous oversight of the arts and literature call to mind the obsessive policing of the arts and literature during the Soviet regime. The movies referenced in the book had all the hallmarks of the worst and most boring sorts of socialist realism, a clerk of some sort fighting a brave battle against enemies of the state for example. Additionally, the perquisites of being active supporters of the regime, the bribes, random sexual encounters, servants and beautiful living quarters all have the hallmarks of the Soviet era. In a puritanical age the Oprichniki enjoy the debauchery they routinely crush during their daily routine. Two scenes, one involving hallucinogenic fish (which I know sounds absurd but works in context) and the other involving a very strange orgy in a bath house takes this debauchery to an extreme.

As noted earlier, Sorokin's language is earthy and the situations he sets out are graphic to say the least. This book is not suitable for people who are easily offended. But I think what Sorokin was doing, and it is something he does in many of his books, is to push a story line to extremes so far that the reader shakes his head an initially says this is simply unbelievable. It is too much. But that is when the reader (this reader at least) takes the individual parts and notes that this may sound unbelievable taken as a whole but each part represents some aspect of life that actually took place in the past. The real Oprichniki really were tasked with instilling fear in the population. They really did wander the streets of Moscow with dog's heads. The Soviet Writers Guild really did take every step to ensure that Soviet art and literature conformed to acceptable norms. People did disappear, were tortured, killed and sexually abused. People like Beria really did cruise the streets of Moscow in search of young girls so he could abduct them, drug them and abuse them.

Day of the Oprichnik assaults you as you read it. In this case, it was worth being assaulted.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 22, 2011 10:08 PM BST

The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment (Penguin Classics)
The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment (Penguin Classics)
by Graham Greene
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Memory and forgetfulness are as life and death, 23 Feb. 2011
to one another. To live is to remember and to remember is to live. To die is to forget and to forget is to die." Samuel Butler

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that it has taken me close to three score years to pick up and read a book by Graham Greene. On the other hand, I now have quite a few books I can now add to my to be read pile.

I purchased this book after reading Alan Furst's Introduction. I very much like Furst's work (See The Foreign Correspondent) and, after reading that Furst was influenced by Eric Ambler I worked my way thought Ambler's works with a great deal of pleasure (See Judgment on Deltchev). In the Introduction to Ministry of Fear, Furst mentions that Greene was another key influence. So I was sold, and, more importantly, I was not disappointed.

As in Ambler and Furst's books The Ministry of Fear gives us an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. Arthur Rowe is an ordinary man, albeit one with a troubled past. He is described by Greene as a tall stooping lean man with a narrow face and whose clothes were good "but gave the impression of being uncared for; you would have said a bachelor if it had not been for an indefinable married look." Set in the early days of WWII, the blitz has just begun and Rowe finds himself in a charity fete. Rowe finds himself paying a few pence to have his fortune told and through a strange quirk of fate utters a phrase that puts him right in the middle of an espionage ring.

The story takes off from there. The cast of characters introduced by Greene should be familiar to anyone who has read Ambler, Buchan, or Furst: the stolid police detectives, the sinister and inscrutable foreign spies and assorted hangers on; and the lovely lady who may be friend or foe. But what Green does here that I find so intriguing is to turn a rather generic story line into a brilliant examination of something entirely different: how memory and forgetfulness either free us or enslave us.

The heart of the book for me was not the story line itself. [Note: possible spoiler follows.] About half way through the book we find that Arthur Rowe had been hurt during the blitz and was suffering from amnesia. As the story continues we see not only the plot develop but witness the transformation of Arthur Rowe. As noted earlier, he had been haunted by an earlier tragedy and, to my mind; this tragedy had totally enslaved Rowe. He was a prisoner of his own guilt and his thoughts and actions were constricted by that guilt. Now that the balance between memory and forgetfulness had shifted so to had Rowe's thoughts and actions. Given a new name he truly became a new person and as his memory starts to return Greene presents us with Rowe force to make a conscious decision as to whether his memory will continue to enslave him. Rowe's decision and the actions that follow take us through the book's satisfying conclusion.

"I have done that", says my memory. "I cannot have done that" -- says my pride, and remains adamant. At last -- memory yields." So said Friedrich Nietzsche and Graham Greene has taken that theme and run with it with great skill and with great delight to the reader.

Highly recommended. L. Fleisig

The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World's Oceans
The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World's Oceans
by William Langewiesche
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful look at the business of shipping, 11 Feb. 2011
I came to this book as a person who spent over a dozen years in the ocean shipping industry. For me, William Langewische's The Outlaw Sea is a fascinating look at a subject with which I am intimately familiar.

Langewiesche's gloomy, albeit accurate, portrayal of life at sea for the `low-end' portion of the ocean shipping industry is marked by excellent research and even better writing. The book has some of the hallmarks of the best fiction. It unfolds dramatically and keeps the reader's attention. Langewiesche's portrayal of the passenger ferry Estonia is heartbreaking. The author pulls no punches. At one point, Langewiesche discusses the horror of the loss of 852 lives on the Estonia, notes the worldwide outpouring of grief (particularly in Northern Europe) but then pauses to mention that ferry accidents such as this are a routine way of life in the third world (in Asia and Africa in particular) and yet these accidents barely attract our attention. The terse, matter-of-fact fashion in which Langewiesche imparts this information has a greater impact than it would have if set out in a dogmatic fashion.

Last, Langewiesche turns his eye to the ship breaking business in India. Vessels that have reached the end of their useful life (and as set out in the book a ship owner's definition of useful life is far longer than may be prudent for safe operation) are run onto beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan where they are dismantled in a manner that endangers everyone involved. Life for these ship breakers is nasty, brutal and short. Langewiesche's portrayal is so well written that one can almost smell the befouled air that lingers over the work area. The author also sets out the political confrontation between the ship breakers and Greenpeace. It is an excellent overview of the conflict that arises between first-world political activists and third world throngs struggling to make a life for their families.

I only take two minor issues with the author. First, in discussing the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain, I think the author did not pay sufficient attention to the horrible decision of the Spanish government to deny safe harbor to the damaged vessel. It is mentioned in passing. The decision to force the Prestige out to sea, before she was damaged beyond repair and before there was a major loss of oil, into stormy and unsafe seas was as much, if not more, to blame for the environmental disaster that followed as the general condition of the vessel before the accident. The actions of the Spanish government in this regard were reprehensible. Second, Langewiesche makes much (rightfully) of the negative impact on foreign flag registration, specifically flags of convenience, in terms of vessel safety, poorly trained seamen, etc. However, it would have been useful to point out as a counterbalance the fact that the Exxon Valdez, the vessel responsible for one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, was a U.S. flag vessel, built to U.S. flag standards, fully accountable to all U.S. maritime laws and regulations with U.S. officers and crew.

This book is well written, informative, and interesting, whether or not one happens to be in this business. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in first rate, well researched and written non fiction.

Riding With The King
Riding With The King
Price: £7.19

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't get much better than this, 11 Feb. 2011
This review is from: Riding With The King (Audio CD)
Riding With the King indeed. Sit back, pull the top down, put on the cruise control and enjoy the ride. B.B. sounds great as always and Clapton is no slouch either. Clapton has always loved the blues - and B.B. is the blues. For those of you who liked King's Deuces Wild, with a variety of partners, this CD represents a great opportunity to hear 2 artists grow over an entire CD. Each track is worth listening to again and again.. Nuff said, listen and enjoy.

Conquered City (New York Review Books Classics)
Conquered City (New York Review Books Classics)
by Victor Serge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The revolution, like Saturn, devours its children.", 11 Feb. 2011
Attributed to Danton shortly before his date with a guillotine.

Early on in Victor Serge's "Conquered City" I came across a passage that I think sums up quite nicely the book's underlying message: "We have conquered everything and everything has slipped out of our grasp. We have conquered bread, and there is famine. We have declared peace to a war-weary world, and war has moved into every house. We have proclaimed the liberation of men, and we need prisons. . . We wanted to give each according to his strength and each to receive according to his needs, and here we are, privileged in the middle of generalized misery, since we are less hungry than others." Serge a committed revolutionary saw earlier than most of his colleagues that `his' revolution could also turn inward and begin to devour its own.

Serge was born in Brussels in 1890 to Russian émigré parents. He returned to Russia early in 1919 in order to support the newly created Soviet Union. He served as both a writer and journalist. However, Serge was one of the first of the old-line revolutionaries to oppose Stalin's concentration of power. He was arrested, expelled from the party, released, and arrested again. Finally, in 1936 after a public campaign by leading European political and literary figures (Andre Gide was one); Serge was released and deported to France. He eventually found his way to Mexico where he died, penniless, in 1947.

Written in 1931/1932, Conquered City is one of Serge's earlier works and it shows. It is not the better crafted writing that you see in The Case of Comrade Tulayev (New York Review Books Classics) and Unforgiving Years, which I consider to be Serge's finest piece of fiction. Set in Petrograd (St. Petersburg/Leningrad) in 1919 the book takes us to a city on the brink (and over the brink) of collapse, famine, desolation and despair. WWI and the October revolution have left Petrograd in near ruins. As the story opens the Civil War is raging and the city, ostensibly controlled by the Bolsheviks (Reds) is a hotbed of anti-revolutionary activity in support of the counter-revolution (Whites). During the course of the book you see the first shoots of the apparatchik culture that was to come to dominate Soviet life. Serge writes of Commissars eating and dressing well at special stores while there is starvation all around. He also writes not just of the excesses of the Whites but also shows some of the justification for suppression of dissent that soon became the norm. This is very provocative stuff both because Serge spotted it so early on and because he wrote of it not out of any reactionary tendencies but because it struck him as a betrayal of revolutionary ideals.

That is pretty much it as far as plotting is concerned. The book takes a number of parallel story-lines, most of which do not connect in more than a tangential way. As a result the book is jarring, jolting and a bit disorienting. Although that was clearly Serge's intent and seems to convey accurately the chaos that covered the city like a Russian blanket of snow, it does make the reader work hard to keep his/her eyes on the picture Serge if painting. As I read it I thought it was a bit like watching a Robert Altman movie.

Ultimately, and despite the jumpiness of the text and some prose that felt a bit `flat'I found Conquered City to be a very worthwhile book. It wasn't an easy book but it was a good one. I find his later work to be more satisfying but this is an important introduction to Serge's writing and I do recommend it. My plan now is to read Bulgakov's White Guard, a book set in Kiev that covers the same ground: a city at war with itself during the Russian Civil War in order to have some point of comparison, both as to the cities and the writing.

Topkapi: The Light of Day
Topkapi: The Light of Day
by Eric Ambler
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A man may grow rich in Turkey even, 11 Feb. 2011
if he will be in all respects a good subject of the Turkish government." Henry David Thoreau

In many respects, Eric Ambler was to the modern British suspense novel what Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were to the American detective novel. Ambler transformed the suspense novel from a simplistic black and white world of perfect good guys versus nefarious bad guys into a far more realistic world where sometimes the difference between good and evil is not all that great. Typically, Ambler takes an unassuming, unsuspecting civilian and immerses him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre and post-World War II Europe. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Len Deighton, and, most recently the highly acclaimed Alan Furst. Topkapi finds Eric Ambler at the top of his game.

The protagonist and narrator is one Arthur Abdel Simpson who may, if his luck holds, grow rich in Turkey. Unlike his typical protagonists Simpson is far from an innocent person. Simpson is something of a hustler. Part English and part Egyptian Simpson makes a living hustling tourists arriving at the Athens airport. He drives a car for hire and passes himself off as a tour guide. Simpson has no aversion to fleecing those tourists he runs into at the airport. He first spots Harper in the Athens airport and thinks he has found a new source of ill-gotten funds. However, it quickly becomes clear that Simpson has met his match in Harper. Harper quickly sees through Simpson and almost before you can say "taxi, sir?" Harper has caught Simpson trying to rob him. Rather than have him arrested, Harper blackmails Simpson into working with Simpson on some sort of mysterious and quite unlawful plan. Simpson is directed to drive a fancy new American car cross the Greek border into Turkey and to await further instructions once he arrives in Istanbul. Simpson is quickly caught by Turkish secret agents who then blackmail him again into reporting on Harper's activities. As Simpson continues to narrate the actions of Harper and his gang on the one side and the Turkish authorities get ever closer to each other. Simpson is forced to walk a tightrope (literally and figuratively) that may just keep him from death or jail and may just net him a few thousand dollars in ill gotten gains if he plays his cards right.

Ambler is masterful when it comes to setting up a plot. He is not ham-handed or overly verbose but he does manage to convey a good sense of the inner workings of the principal characters in his stories. Ambler writes with a light touch when it comes to violence. It is more implicit than explicit. Yet the reader can sense violence `in the air' or at least the threat of violence as the plot thickens. He also has a keen eye for the various geographic settings in which his stories are set. You invariably get a feel for the streets and alleyways his characters come across. The Light of Day is no exception. Simpson is, as noted, no angel. He is a hustler and something of a con-man. Yet Ambler portrays him in such a clever way that you cannot help but hope he gets himself out of the mess he made for himself.

I am a great admirer of Ambler's work and highly recommend any of his books to anyone not familiar with his work. They make for a nice read on hot summer days or long winter nights. The Light of Day is as good a place to start for anyone interested in discovering the author who shares no small bit of `genetic code' with le Carre, Fleming, Deighton, and Furst.

After Claude (New York Review Books Classics)
After Claude (New York Review Books Classics)
by Iris Owens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.", 11 Feb. 2011
Bette Davis (as Margo Channing).

Harriet, the protagonist of Iris Owens's "After Claude", may be one of the most annoying literary figures you will run into. Calling her toxic, totally self-absorbed and completely free of any self-reflection or sense of irony would be an understatement. Harriet's problematic, irksome personality is revealed early on in the book and I think this will leave a reader with two options: one will either put down the book after the first chapter, never to pick it up again; or, will be totally entranced by this walking train wreck of a person and turn every page to see just what mishegosh will come pouring from Harriet's lips next. Count me among the latter.

Set in New York City in the early 1970s, the story opens with Harriet and her soon to be ex-boyfriend Claude (known to her as Claude the Rat) leaving an art-house cinema on the Upper West Side. The `bumpy ride' starts immediately and Harriet is told by Claude she will have to move out of his Greenwich Village apartment. In the week that follows we learn how Harriet came to live with Claude, why she was tossed out of an apartment by her last roommate, Rhoda-Regina, and see her wind up in a shabby room at the Chelsea Hotel (long a haven for New York's bohemian crowd including Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Arthur C Clarke who wrote 2001 A Space Odyssey while staying at the hotel). The story concludes with a bizarre encounter with of group of people at The Chelsea who may have been Harriet's match in terms of other-worldliness.

"After Claude" is not a book in which it is the story or plot that gives the pleasure but, rather, Iris Owens' ability to tell Harriet's story in a pretty compelling way. Told through Harriet's eyes you get a glimpse of the world as she (and only she) sees it while wincing at Harriet's inability to see even for a moment just how toxic she is being. Harriet's stream of consciousness narrative is frenetic, funny and sexually charged. At one point, while recounting the story of the disastrous encounter Harriet arranged between Rhoda-Regina and a stranger Harriet found in the adult classifieds of a newspaper she makes much of the advertiser's claim that he spoke Russian, French and Greek only to snicker when he arrived speaking only English. The joke relates to the meaning of Russian, French and Greek in the sex trade, and is funnier when one considers that Owens wrote pornography under an assumed name in Paris (Harriet as it turns out) and must surely have been intimately familiar with their meaning. The story is dotted with little incidents like this.

As noted, "After Claude" may not be for you if you don't much like the idea of a book whose main character is really an annoying wreck of a person. I couldn't resist it, perhaps because Harriet seemed to me to be a composite of every toxic relationship I've ever had and at each mis-adventure, each cringe-inducing moment I smiled to myself and thought, ruefully and not too seriously, "thank goodness those days are long over!"

I got a real kick out of "After Claude" but, as Harriet may have said, your mileage may vary. Recommended.

Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (NYBR Classics)
Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (NYBR Classics)
by comte de Philippe-Paul Ségur
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Which way shall I fly, Infinite wrath and infinite despair?, 21 Jan. 2011
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat'ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven." John Milton

The tortuous journey into the lower reaches found in Milton's "Paradise Lost" serves as an appropriate leitmotif for "Defeat", Philippe-Paul De Segur's extraordinary memoirs of Napoleon's Russian campaign. As I read one chapter to the next I could not help but wonder whether things could actually worse and, invariably they did. Napoleon's campaign went from promising to bad to worse and then got worse from there. Whenever it seemed like they'd reached the lowest deep, a lower deep opened up and devoured more until a once proud Grande Armee was little more than a ragged, starving, ghost of what it used to be.

When heavyweight boxing champs Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson were at their peak they won most of their fights before they even started. If you ever watch any of those fights and catch a glimpse of their opponents you can see that they know they have lost even before the opening bell. Liston and Tyson relied on this fear to great advantage. So to with Napoleon. As de Segur notes toward the end of his memoirs: "They did not believe in our defeat until they saw it, and the almost superstitious faith of Europe in the infallibility of Napoleon's genius gave him an advantage over his enemies." In de Segur's hands we see how Napoleon's campaign seemed contingent on having Russia, in particular Czar Alexander, accede to their fate and sue for peace.

It was Napoleon's view that Alexander would accept his settlement demands as his armies camped on the west side of the Niemen River. Alexander ignored the demand so Napoleon marched across the Niemen and into Russia and decided that all he needed was one great victory and Alexander would have to sue for peace. Alexander, probably against all conventional wisdom, refused to go along. The Russians retreated and retreated and despite some skirmishes along the way the great battle Napoleon hoped for did not take place. As the army moved east de Segur writes of the ongoing problem of a long supply chain, problems exacerbated by the fact that the Russians left little in the way of supplies behind. By the time of the one great battle of the campaign, Borodino, Napoleon had lost thousands of men to desertion and to small battles with marauding Cossacks. Despite his (rather pyrrhic) victory at Borodino, Alexander still would not sue for peace. So on Napoleon marched until he reached Moscow. And at Moscow he found a city soon burned to a crisp which left little shelter and no food in the face on a Russian winter. The rest of the memoir takes us down Napoleon's disastrous retreat which did not end until the Russian armies arrived in Paris. At one point de Segur writes of Napoleon plotting out a battle and ordering generals to attack with armies that no longer existed. That passage was eerily reminiscent of the closing days of World War II where a non-lucid German leader laid out similarly impossible battle plans.

This is not a `military' history, far from it. If you are looking for a detailed analysis of the order of battle of the campaign or the Battle of Borodino and the sacking of Moscow, you will not find it here. What you will find is a beautifully written, mostly subjective, first-hand account of a campaign gone horribly wrong. At one point he writes of the panic created by a false report: "At that moment, the general commanding the advance guard informed Partouneaux that our bridges had been set on fire: an aide-de-camp named Rochez swore that he had seen them burning. Partouneaux believed that false report, for where calamity is concerned, misfortune is credulous."

It is hard to capture the full flavor of de Segur's writing so I will simply close by stating that the book captured my attention from the start and even though I knew how Napoleon's Russian campaign turned out, the writing kept me engaged enough to wonder exactly what would happen next. If you have any interest in Napoleon or French or Russian history, or just plain good non-fiction writing I think you will find this book as rewarding as I did.

L. Fleisig

Uncommon Danger (Penguin Modern Classics)
Uncommon Danger (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Eric Ambler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "For many men that stumble at the threshold, 11 Jan. 2011
Are well foretold that danger lurks within." Henry VI, Part III.

When down-on-his-luck British journalist Kenton boarded an Austria-bound train at Nuremberg he likely had no idea what danger lurked within. Strapped for cash after losing virtually all his money in a dice game, Kenton agrees to smuggle an envelope across the Austrian border for an old man claiming to be a refugee from Hitler's Germany. This was the point at which Kenton stumbled at the threshold of danger in Eric Ambler's spy thriller "Uncommon Danger".

Long before Fleming's James Bond, le Carre's George Smiley and Len Deighton's Harry Palmer there were Eric Ambler's accidental spies. In the late 1930's the loosely defined adventure/spy genre was not much advanced from the earlier works of Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands) and John Buchan (Thirty Nine Steps). Typically, Ambler would take an unassuming, unsuspecting spectator and immerse him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre-World War II Europe, a world of shadows and shades of grey. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of Fleming (who read Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios" while writing "From Russia With Love") le Carre, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst. "Background to Danger" is an excellent example of Ambler at work.

Kenton's absorption into the world of intrigue begins shortly after taking possession of the documents on the train. It quickly becomes clear that the man is no refugee and the envelope contains documents that foretell danger for anyone unlucky enough to have them. The documents are sought by ruthless interested parties that include Soviet agents (a brother and sister who make appearances in a number of Ambler's books) and industrial spies hired by an English munitions company that belies possession of the documents will enable it to enhance its sales of arms to Eastern Europe. As these parties close in on him Kenton is forced to think on his feet and make life and death decisions about who he can and cannot trust. Kenton knows his life is in danger and he must flea Austria for the relative safety of Czechoslovakia. The story follows Kenton's escape attempt until a climactic scene in which the few remaining loose ends are tied up.

As with all his best work Ambler is a great scene-setter. You get a real feel for the many geographic settings he uses as the book progresses. Ambler is also good at character development. His writing is terse and to the point yet the characters nature is revealed slowly and in a non-hackneyed manner. There are no saints or starkly painted devils in Ambler's books but ultimately Ambler's protagonists (and the reader) are provided with enough information to make a choice between good and evil or, sometimes, a hard choice between the lesser of two evils.

Uncommon Danger is an excellent book and makes for a worthy introduction to Ambler's work for anyone not familiar with his work. For fans of Ambler, I'd say this is among the upper end of his stories. They are all good, but I'd say that Background to Danger is close to the top of the heap.

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