Friday, July 31, 2009

Spies of Warsaw - Alan Furst


As most of you know, I have a little bit of an obsession with books and movies that take place during WWII. At the beginning of the year, I signed up to read 10 books for the War Through the Generations Reading Challenge, and I've completed 8 of them. The last two books are still up for grabs...I am always excited to discover what the Book Gods are going to throw in my path. So one day, when I was perusing some books featured on the Pump Up Your Book Promotion website, I noticed "Spies of Warsaw". Spies? WWII? Poland? Ah, the inspiration I'd been waiting for! Where do I sign up? Thanks Dorothy, for letting me jump on this bandwagon! Within a few hours of receiving the book in the mail, I had already started it.

I've never read anything by the author, Alan Furst. But after some quick research, I've discovered him to be THE expert on all things espionage in the years leading up to WWII. In fact, based on an interview of Alan on You Tube, he is quite a likeable guy that stays religiously true to the historical facts. Like a master chef, he takes his basic ingredients of documented history, adds a dash of character development of a great protagonist, a pinch of dangerous risk-taking, seasons it up with some romance, and you have a ripping, read-through-the night spy novel.

Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier works as a military attache for the French Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. A recent widower, a war hero, and a dedicated yet tormented employee, he is the best in the business. That is, the business of recruiting spies to obtain information from the Germans. He has many tricks up his sleeves, and possesses an almost sixth sense of what could motivate a human being to take such to take such drastic measures. Money, perhaps? An affair with a hot "countess"? Or maybe sanctuary from a life on the run, or revenge on a government run amuck. Mercier knows which buttons to push, and he gets results. He is even willing to do the dirty work himself if necessary. After all, it could mean the difference between peace and war, and Mercier believes in his heart that this benefit outweighs any of the necessary evils of the job.

But the French aren't the only game in town. In fact, Warsaw is teeming with Germans spying on Germans, Russians spying on the Polish, and Germans spying on the French, and often sides are switched when the going gets tough. They are literally tripping over each other. It is an era of paranoia, keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, witch hunts and finger-pointing, and figuring out exactly who can be trusted. Mercier learns the hard way that sometimes the enemy isn't necessarily always the dude with the swastika on his uniform.

As any fan of WWII historical fiction would probably agree, I've had my share of concentration camps. For anyone interested in this time period, this book is an excellent diversion from the expected. Another angle, another perspective. Mercier is achingly human and likeable, and Furst does an excellent job of helping us understand what makes him tick. The prose was very interesting - it flowed well (I read the book in just a couple of days), and was written in a slightly formal way, perhaps in order to capture Mercier's European professionalism and personality.

Having visited Warsaw myself, I was just a bit disappointed that the city's essence wasn't more fully developed. I love to read books that make me feel that I've seen it, smelled it, tasted it, and lived it, but this was missing from Spies of Warsaw. Furst instead focused on more of the emotional ambiance of fear and betrayal, which gets your heart racing quite nicely. There were also a few loose story lines that were still hanging unraveled at the end of the story. Small quibbles aside, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will most definitely more of Alan Furst.

4 out of 5 stars

20 comments:

Melody said...

Sounds like a good, complex WWII story! You've definitely made me want to read this book through your lovely review!!

Book Chick City said...

I'm not too fond of war books or movies, but then again I haven't read that many. What would you suggest as a good war book to start with?

I see you are reading Judy Blume - that brings back memories. I used to read her all the time when I was young, I thought she was just brilliant!

farmlanebooks said...

A little obsessed?!! LOL!!

Great review, but I'm not as big a fan of WWII as you - I'm only putting you 5 star WWII books on my list!

ANovelMenagerie said...

Nice review. I think I've read too much war-based reading this year. I'm going to avoid war stuff until next year to prevent overload. I think just reading too much about Hilter, etc. just saddened me too much.

War is such a tragedy in itself.

But, I do appreciate your review and enjoyed reading it.

Sher

Sandy Nawrot said...

Melody - well, its a different twist on WWII. I really enjoyed it!

Book Chick - I think one of my favorite, more upbeat war books is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Nothing too depressing there! Even better if you can listen to it on audio! Yes, the kids and I are listening to Judy Blume in the car. They haven't lived until they know about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing!

Jackie - I know, go ahead a laugh! I read so much war stuff, my head is going to explode! This is not a five star, but like I said, is a nice change of plot to the normal war novels.

Sher - even I, of the one-track mine, have to give myself space between WWII books, so I understand where you are coming from. I think what inspires me most are the stories of survival, the strength of will, and bravery despite everything. It also makes me appreciate where and when we live!!

C. B. James said...

I've read a couple by Furst but not this one. I'll look for it, though I prefer cold war era spies.

Trying to finish Every Man Dies Alone today so I can start Blindness tomorrow.

Sandy Nawrot said...

That last 100 pages of Every Man Dies Alone is brutal. It made me very emotional and made my heart race. I just finished Blindness. Once you are done, we can begin trading e-mails and compiling our thoughts. This should be interesting!

Serena said...

this sounds like a great diversion! I really like this part of your review: "Like a master chef, he takes his basic ingredients of documented history, adds a dash of character development of a great protagonist, a pinch of dangerous risk-taking, seasons it up with some romance, and you have a ripping, read-through-the night spy novel. "

ds said...

Been meaning to read something by Alan Furst; this may be it, thanks to your review. I'll keep your caveat about the atmosphere in mind, though, because I also like to have a real "feel" for the setting, and if there is anyone who can be trusted on the subjects of WWII, Warsaw, and Poland in general (among many other things), it is you!

Nymeth said...

I'm very drawn to WWII stories myself, and as important as books about the Holocaust are, I've been on the lookout for different approaches and perspectives. So I'll definitely keep an eye out for this!

mattviews said...

It's my pleasure to give you an award that serves as a gesture of how much your blog means to me. Please visit my blog to be recognized. :)

I love WWII and spy fiction, and consider that I haven't read Alan Furst, this might be a good intro.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Serena - Thanks! Don't know what got into me. I must have been in the cooking mood the day I wrote that!

ds - Warsaw definitely has an aura, but obviously it wasn't the author's intent to capture it. That's OK. Still a really good read!

Nymeth - I know! When you read so many WWII books, it is a nice change to see if from a different perspective. I'm in the middle of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet right now, and that is another one that is coming at WWII from a completely different place!

Matt - Thank you so much! I'm completely honored you would think of me!

savidgereads said...

I havent heard of this but it sounds great. I have to pace my WWII reads, I think we covered it too much at school. I need to add though... what a fabulous cover!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Simon - I didn't get any of this in school, so I read it all time time! It isn't the typical war story, and it isn't this stomach-ache-inducing dreariness that you normally get. You're right, the cover is great!

Susan said...

Sounds like a good read! When I was in high school, less than 30 years after the war ended, I was obsessed with all things WWII. I read every book in our little school library and whatever I could scrounge off the Bookmobile. Loved watching the movies, too, and I still do.

Have you read Winds of War and War and Remembrance? Have I asked you this before? It's possible I'm getting a wee bit forgetful in my advanced age! LOL

Sandy Nawrot said...

Susan - no I don't think you've mentioned these books to me, and no I haven't read them! (Although, you could have mentioned them, I have forgotten! Ha!) As much as I love this genre, there are so many greats that I have not read! I'll get to them eventually, not to worry!

Anna said...

I agree that there wasn't enough to make you feel like you're in Warsaw, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book. And it's definitely something different about WWII. I'll get this one on War Through the Generations soon.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Beth F said...

Do you read WWII books?

Good review, but I just am not attracted to WWII stories. Maybe because my father fought in Germany, maybe because of the Holocaust, maybe because I grew up in the antiwar Vietnam generation. I am just not very attracted to these books.

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

I've never read anything by Furst, but this sounds like it'd be right up my alley!

Anna said...

We posted your review on War Through the Generations.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric