Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review of The Ordeal of the Hermitage: The Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

It took a long time to find a copy of The Ordeal of the Hermitage: The Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944 (text by Sergie Varshavsky and Boris Rest) at a reasonable price, but the search was well worth it, even if I had to give it away as a Christmas gift.  I have visited the Hermitage before, so the history of his magnificent museum holds great interest for me, especially the era of Catherine the Great, who procured many pieces of art still on display there (so I borrowed this book back from the giftee as soon as possible).   It focuses on the period during World War II when the Nazi army surrounded St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and laid siege to the city.

The museum curators and staff had just days to pack up and ship millions of items to safety at a secure location deep inside the USSR.  Citizens turned out to help in droves to help preserve their precious legacy.  In one case, the workers from a pottery factor lent their expertise in handling fragile items by packing priceless artifacts such as China dishes, porcelain plates and glass figurines.

The book follows the staff as they remained holed up in the mostly empty museum, with a couple thousand refuges from the city.  The curator gave his staff the opportunity to leave as the Nazi army approached but most opted to stay.  With the stranglehold by the German forces, food rations were cut several times as Leningrad citizens starved but held out for three winters.  The head of the museum continued his daily rounds, checking constantly to see if enemy shells had caused any damage. 

The advancing army did extensive damage but nature did a number on the museum herself.  One unseasonably wet spring endangered artifacts such as cushions and furniture with mold.  Shelling had opened several holes in the roofs and walls that although didn’t do much harm to the building, but allowed rain, snow and pervading humidity to invade.

The book contains a wealth of pictures mainly of the exhibits but the most poignant are those taken of the Hermitage during the siege.  Black and white photos show the stark realization of the toll the Nazis took, not only on the Hermitage but of the city itself.  One horrid photo shows the beautiful manor house at Peterhof, with golden spires, reduced to a blackened, burnt out shell, courtesy of Hitler.

Translated into English from the original Russian, the translators may have taken some creative liberties with the vivid descriptors, but they convey without language barriers the excitement and joy of the Hermitage staff and the citizens of Leningrad when their beloved treasures come home after several years in exile.

I wish I had read this book before visiting the Hermitage but even after the fact, it’s still a great read. 

For WWII history buffs, it’s a must read.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Review of Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

For decades, I read mysteries and science fiction novels almost exclusively, with an occasional history non-fiction title thrown in there, but in the past year or so I’ve become a big fan of spy stories. After reading, Daniel Silva’s The Defector, I’ve been hooked. I picked a Portrait of a Spy without hesitation but waited until my novel Invisible Curtain was complete and released.

I mentioned in an earlier post how great minds think alike. The synopsis on the jacket of Portrait said Gabriel Allon, Silva’s spy, investigates bombs in London, Copenhagen and Paris, while my character, psionic detective Corey Shaw investigates bombs in London, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg. Wow! That was enough to hook me even if I hadn’t read the previous two novels by Silva.  It appears we came up with similar plot points at the same time!

In Portrait, Gabriel is enjoying his retirement on the rainy cliffs of Cornwall with his beautiful wife Chiara, doing nothing more than restoring paintings of the Great Masters. A routine trip to London takes a horrible turn as Gabriel witnesses a suicide bomber kill eighteen people and wound many more, a tragedy he could’ve prevented. Hopelessly entangled in the investigation into the terrorist acts, Gabriel assembles a team from the Israeli secret ops and reluctantly, the CIA. His plan: buy a terrorist cell.

A charismatic Muslim cleric, recruited by the CIA, has switched sides and is recruiting terrorists instead of spying on them. The CIA wants him to go away. Permanently.

Gabriel, through a series of meticulously planned steps approaches the ultra-wealthy daughter of a terrorist he killed several years ago. He takes a gamble that she will not follow in her father’s footsteps and will work with them to bring down a big embarrassment to the CIA and avenge the deaths in Europe, as well as strike a blow to the terrorist network her father developed.

His gamble pays off. Nadia is rich, powerful and smart and agrees to help Allon, not for Israel or the US, but to bring about an end to the oppression of women in her country. Despite her wealth, even she must obey the strict rules levied against women in the Middle East.

Much of the story is the seduction and preparation of Nadia to enter the world of global terrorism. I found it difficult to follow Allon’s plan in some areas, where it seemed the story contradicted itself. Still I found it to be an engaging, captivating story filled with great spy techniques with covert listening devices, devices to befuddle listening devices, surveillance and secret messages.

Silva brings so many minute and vivid details to each of his novels to give the reader the feeling they are standing in the middle of the desert with Allon, or holed up in a safe house in DC with his team.

The exciting page-turning climax in the desert with Allon, Nadia and a multitude of surprises and twists gave me sweaty palms as I gripped the book tightly. I can’t wait for the next novel.

Inside Passage to Murder available from JMS Books!

My first mainstream novel under my pseudonym Alan Scott is a continuation of the Corey Shaw mysteries featuring the Psionic Corps.  This first novel features his colleague, Mark Shotridge from Alaska.

Paranormal sleuth Mark Shotridge has a dream that indicates a cruise ship operating in Alaskan waters is in trouble. He books passage on the ship to investigate his vision. After leaving Seward the first night at sea, Mark has another vision that suggests someone has been thrown overboard into the icy waters of the north Pacific. However, nobody is reported missing and Mark begins to question his special abilities.

Soon crew member is found murdered in his cabin and Mark is certain that there is more going on than he originally suspected. The body count rises and he realizes that a serial killer might be on board but what is the reason behind the murders?

Mark must use all of his powers to stop a ruthless killer before the ship docks in Vancouver, British Columbia. Otherwise the tourism industry and the economy of Alaska may be destroyed.


Mark Shotridge stirred in his bed, consciousness gripping hold of his body. Something had disturbed his sleep. He tucked his arms back underneath the warm covers and listened, trying to determine what woke him. Nothing in the house stirred and he couldn’t discern anything moving around outside either, except for the rain water making soft noises as it dropped off of the eaves of the house but too quiet to have roused him.

“Typical September weather for southeastern Alaska,” he grumbled, rubbing his eyes as he grasped for reality from the disorientation that came from being yanked out of a deep sleep. The dim gray light filtering through the windows told him the sun hadn’t risen yet.

So much for sleeping in on a Sunday morning. Mark sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to rid his head of the sleep that hung onto his brain.

He walked over to the window, peeked through the slats in the blinds and blinked at the gray light, bright in comparison to the darkness of the bedroom.

In the distance, heavy clouds hung low over Juneau. He wrinkled his nose at the musty odor of all pervading dampness that seeped into every nook and cranny of his house.

The short summer was fading fast, he sighed. It seemed like winter came to Alaska earlier every year. And stayed longer.

What could send an SOS? His thoughts returned to his sudden awakening.

His house sat on a hill north of the Alaskan capitol, overlooking Gastineau Inlet, the new housing addition lay in a rural area, with undeveloped land all around. He could have been awakened by a wild animal wandering past as they were prone to do. Bears were a frequent sight, foraging for food in the humans’ habitats, but Mark couldn’t see any evidence of one passing, the usual sign of which was trash strewn across the yard. Moose, also not uncommon in these parts, tended to leave the trash alone.

In the distance a dog barked two or three times, the sound too soft to have awakened him. Besides which, if a bear or a moose were anywhere nearby, every dog in the neighborhood would be engaged in a frenzy of barking.

Across the bay, Mark could just make out the lights of the city of Douglas. Traffic was just starting to pick up on the Glacier Highway, running north and south far below his house, past the bay into the capitol toward the docks where the cruise ships disgorged hundreds of tourists each week. He couldn’t see the highway from his house, but the sound of traffic running toward the capitol just reached his ears. Cruise ships?


Save Our Ship.

Something clicked in his mind. A half remembered dream. That’s what had wakened him. He had a dream with a cruise ship in it. Something like that seemed rather innocuous so why had that disturbed him so much that it had awakened him?

He returned to the bed and lay back down on top of the covers, resisting the impulse to luxuriate in the comfort underneath them, and placed his hands behind his head, crossing his legs at the ankles. He closed his eyes in an effort to recollect his dream. Pieces came back together one at a time, fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle, forming a picture in his mind.

No, not a jigsaw puzzle. It was more like scenes of a movie watched long ago and long since forgotten, trying to reassemble and recreate the story. Who were the performers? Where was it set? What was the plot? With mental effort, the fog in his brain dissipated and he began to relax, grasping at each scene, latching on to its familiarity and allowing it to grow, as the movie scenes spliced together. Piece by piece, it solidified in his mind.

* * * *

A cruise ship sat moored at a dock near a less-than-picturesque sea side town that resembled a terminal for cargo and commercial ships rather than passenger vessels. Forklifts littered the deck, parked at random like a child’s toys, as if the drivers had jumped out of their seats without turning them off or lowering the lifts. Large metal bins for stowing cargo lay scattered about, doors hanging open but revealing only emptiness inside. Wide silver conduits that transported oil, gas and other liquid commodities ran the length of the dock.

Despite its commercial purpose, the dock was quiet. What should have been a bustling terminal seemed all but deserted. Sea gulls, the ever-present denizens of sea side communities with their incessant screeching and plaintive cries, did not circle overhead. The town’s main purpose appeared to be for industry or manufacturing, rather than recreation or a sea side resort. It also exhibited no signs of life, as if the inhabitants had evacuated in a silent exodus. The weather reflected the setting of the dock, very gray and cool, seeming to drain any festive mood of a cruise ship. There was no color to the scene, as everything appeared to be shades of black, gray and white, like a much worn clip of an old black and white horror picture show.

* * * *

Mark opened his eyes. He felt there was more to the dream but nothing else emerged. He remained on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, trying to interpret this strange reverie. What was it trying to tell him?

He’d received images and visions before, but to get a premonition in the form of a dream was rare. And very disconcerting. His ability allowed him to foresee events before they occurred but only in close proximity and in the very near future. Visions came in spontaneous, quick flashes of precognition, lasting for only an instant. Unpredictable and uncontrollable, his power surprised him when these revelations occurred. In these ‘signs’, Mark was only an outside observer, able to watch the events as they unfolded and not being able to participate.

But this form of clairsentience, precognition in dreams, seemed to be getting more frequent.


The word came back to his mind.

What does this dream mean?