Reader’s book recommendations to a writer – part 1

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne wants book recommendations. Or so my spies, terrified informants, and omnipresent digital surveillance AIs tell me.

So here’s the first of the recommendations. Written using time I don’t have. Why I’ll explain in the next post. Suffice it to say that Yudhanjaya is an important enough author. Important enough for the voices in my head to demand that I write this.

Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst

I’m recommending this book not just for a sex scenes.

Don’t smirk. They are not what you think. Written well, sex scenes are potent narrative devices. Done “right” they show (than tell) character dynamics and sets or shifts the momentum/direction of the story. All with an unique truthful intimacy.

Sex scenes are the easiest way to wreck any story. They are the hardest kind of writing to do well. You do it “right” or not at all. Which means creating a situation in words that is neither porn nor erotica. But a narrative device serving the reading experience.

Alan Furst shows how a master writer does it. The words flow without awkwardness. Serving the greater purpose of good story telling with an economy of description. So even fellatio has a place in the scheme of things.

In Furst’s books what happens during sex says a lot about the characters and their inner worlds. It comes across as convincing not only because of the writing. Female characters are shown as humans. With all the complications people have. Often they are smarter than the men. They strive to live their own. Follow their own convictions in the face of the world they inhabit. A combination which makes the what happens during a sex scene believable.

Yes, Spies of the Balkans is no War and Piece or The Autumn of the Patriarch. Alan Furst is not a Camus or a Gabriel García Márquez. Yet the book is a monument to good story telling. It’s structure and pacing gives it a very satisfying rhythm. The sex scenes, from a technical point of view, are part of the narrative mechanics. As a serious writer, Yudhanjaya will have plenty to dissect.

Spies of the Balkans is set Salonika (Thessaloniki) Greece during 1940 (with scenes in Paris, Berlin). So it is more than just espionage. There’s geo politics and the way it alters people’s lives. The choices people make in the face of looming, uncertain threats to the world they know. Or in the face of normalising cruelty. How the dutiful serve evil. While taking satisfaction, even pleasure in their devotion to duty.

At a societal scale, there’s the timeless intersection of power elites, organised crime, and law enforcement. Even technology, and it’s surprising impact on everything of the time. Yes there are spies in there too. The whole range: amateurs, pros, the willing and the unwilling. Along with a dog, a grand mother and a poet who buys twenty Walther PPKs.

Overall a bloody good read. I have lost track of how many times I re-read it.

This is a odd recommendation for a sci-fi writer. But Yudhanjaya has already proven himself in sci-fi. As a writer I think he will find this book interesting, useful or neither.

There are a few more books. I’ll unpack then in the next post. Then the voices in my head will give me a few moments of peace.


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