"Night Soldiers" by Alan Furst

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Author Alan Furst calls it “near history.” Night Soldiers provides us a view with near-miraculous clarity of war-torn Europe in the 1940s, and this glimpse comes to us courtesy of Khristo – a nineteen-year-old Bulgarian youth who grows up by a river, watches Fascist thugs murder his younger brother, and falls into the war himself in the clutches of the Soviet secret service, the NKVD. This satisfying excursion into World War II espionage has every feature you’d want: intriguing insights into the tradecraft, a closely imagined story of a Soviet purge of its security service (Khristo is sentenced to life in prison as a result), close-ups of the cruel and genocidal regimes lording it over Europe at the time, and even a dabbling into the hero’s love life.

World War II nearly kills Khristo; he is one of the few survivors from the close-knit group that trained together in Moscow. Mr. Furst spares no effort in portraying the wasted Europe of the time, either. Protagonist Khristo suffers time and again in various circumstances and for various reasons, just like the devastated continent. In fact,
we witness the damage done over time to the man and the place, as in parallel. That’s what remains with me after finishing this book: I remember and feel the near-death escapes, heroic perseverance, and lost opportunities for happiness. Night Soldiers is packed with diverting secondary characters, too, from Khristo’s lover in Paris, to the American adventuress fighting in the Spanish Civil War, to the stout woman who pilots the tug boat that carries Khristo to freedom.

This is an extreme page-turner. Outcomes for characters are always in doubt – some make us sorry we liked a character, but overall, Mr. Furst has cobbled together a highly satisfying yarn of suspense, featuring fully nuanced heavies, and intrepid heroes.

"Paint the Bird" by Georgeann Packard

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Author Georgeann Packard places a quote at the beginning of Paint the Bird that plainly consigns faith to the realm of illusion. And she goes on to describe the crisis of faith suffered by her main character Sarah, who as a practicing minister, has a struggle indeed. The resulting conflict brings a sharp focus on family, loss, weakness, and redemption.

 People and events in Paint the Bird spring before us, like birds spooked into flight. Sarah Obadias, a veteran preacher in an “inclusive, nurturing” church, finds herself in the company of a compelling stranger and gives in to his sensual attractions. She also falls into his life, trapped almost, and his life is rather wretched at the moment. Tall, well aged, with a generous mane of white hair, this man is named Abraham, which is appropriate for this Sarah, and for this book, which purposely echoes Bible narratives. Abraham’s son (named Yago, not Isaac) has died and the events of the novel revolve around the effects of this untimely demise.

The language in this book is vivid and urgent, as are
the issues the characters must face. Ms. Packard engages us fully in this compact but eventful story. She handles the harrowing journeys of her main characters very surely, and strikes a particularly elegant chord with Abraham, the bereft father and artist who strives to understand and perhaps preserve his lost son. This plaintive, elegiac novel tugs at our hearts as it pushes us to come to grips with its human lesson of hope and charity, even if faith comes up a little worse for wear. A very gratifying follow-up to Fall Asleep Forgetting, as Ms. Packard continues to make good on her considerable promise.