Friday, June 29, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Dark Star
Author: Alan Furst
Dark Star is the second book in Furst's Night Soldiers series.  My reflection on the first book is here.  The series now totals 14, all espionage thrillers based in Europe, 1930s-40s.  Most of the stories have no direct connection to each other, though book #1 is referenced a few times in #2.  Like Night Soldiers, Dark Star follows the career of a single spy, in this case AndrĂ© Szara, a Soviet journalist of Polish/Jewish background.  The story covers Szara's life from 1937-40.  While most of the early action takes place in Paris, he also makes stops in Brussels, Prague, Berlin and Moscow.  He makes it to Poland just in time for the outbreak of war, when the story makes a sharp and desperate turn.

I enjoy Furst's style a great deal.  An early passage establishes Szara's character nicely:
What he remembered later was not that he had fought bravely, he had simply decided that life mattered more than anything else in the world and had contrived to cling to it.  In those years he had seen heroes, and how they went about their work, how they did what had to be done, and he knew he was not one of them.
Furst is not as gritty and believable as le CarrĂ© nor does his location research seem as exhaustive as David Downing's.  But the elegance of his prose exceeds both.  The portrayal of Poland just as the country is coming to grips with its historical fate is especially impressive. 

There are a lot of characters to keep track of which can get confusing.  At the beginning of part 2, there is a diagram of Szara's intelligence network, definitely helpful.  But it mostly pertained to the people below him on the chain, whereas I was more likely to mix up the people above him.  The characters are rich, though, and mostly likeable, especially his lovers.

Some of the pacing towards the end feels off, seemingly glossing over what could have been some interesting parts of the narrative.  I wonder if Furst initially had a longer series devoted to Szara in mind or if an editor simply told him enough was enough already.  There's also a weird plot summary passage, depicted as Szara's own musings, as if Furst didn't quite trust his readers to paste all the pieces together on their own.  

Even with a few flaws - or simply choices that I didn't quite agree with - I'm definitely up for book #3: The Polish Officer.

Finally, a shout out to Random House's customer service department.  In the midst of reading, I discovered my volume was missing a huge chunk of text: pages 53-84.  After a quick email exchange, Random House sent me a new copy, no fuss.  Well done!

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post July's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is July 27th.


  1. As an author, I'm going to guess that any skimpiness toward the end was the fault of the author. It can be very tempting to rush through the ending because you're ready to be finished or because you're excited or... well, a lot of reasons.

    However, a summary passage, especially if it feels out of context with the rest of the work, is more likely the result of an editor or the publisher, especially if someone in that chain was confused by the book.

    1. You may well be right in both cases. I still enjoyed the book immensely, even if there were a few things I would have changed myself.

  2. I like mysteries and this sounds very interesting, especially the Polish part. Not much of my family history is left after the war, and even though this is fiction I always perk up when I hear Poland. Which has nothing to do with your review.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. Much of my wife's heritage is Polish so I am interested from a family perspective, too. The Nazi invasion of Poland is such a pivotal moment in world history that I think it's crucial to take a step back and appreciate the more basic elements of the individual human experience - irritation and inconvenience, along with the expected sadness, fear and horror. This book did a nice job with that.

  3. Sounds like an interesting, yet complicated read. I'm glad you enjoyed it enough to seek out the next installment.

    1. Definitely. It's already on the TBR shelf.