- Paperback: 566 pages
- Publisher: South Publishing (1 June 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781999582401
- ISBN-13: 978-1999582401
- ASIN: 1999582403
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.2 x 22.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 762 g
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
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OF OUR OWN DEVICE Paperback – 1 Jun 2018
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"... [A] stellar thriller with memorable characters… There is a strong political and social commentary that punctuates the story and gives it life, unveiling a Russia that readers hardly know.” Ruffina Oserio for Readers' Favorite
"The plotting is meticulous and brilliantly satisfying." Joel R. Dennstedt, author, for Readers' Favorite
"A definite recommendation for fans of spy fiction, Soviet history buffs, and readers looking for an intense M/M love story." Award-winning author E.P. Clark
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Okay, I'm being tongue in cheek, but "Of Our Own Device" has pretty much everything readers longing for a hit of classic Cold War spy fiction could want. Plus a bunch more. It's a big, sprawling book covering the Gorbachev era and the last years of the DDR, full of intrigue, double-crossing, deep cover operatives, and a very hot romance between CIA operative Jack and Eton, the Russian student he's been assigned to recruit.
So yeah. It's a bit like a John Le Carre novel meets "Brokeback Mountain." If you are a fan of Cold War thrillers, or just like reading about the perestroika era, "Of Our Own Device" will have plenty for you to enjoy. The descriptions of 1980s Moscow and Berlin are chock-a-block full of period detail, making you feel as if you're ducking in and out of metro stations and dodging Ladas and Zhigulis on the rainy streets right along with Jack, as he sneaks off to semi-sanctioned trysts with Eton. The major events and concerns of the late '80s are all there too, and even though we now know how it all turned out, you can't help but wonder and worry along with the characters over the arms race, nuclear winter, and Chernobyl. And then there's the vibrant semi-underground late-Soviet rock scene, of which Eton is a part: he's torn between becoming a nuclear physicist or a rock musician, and frequents both worlds, getting firsthand reports about the Chernobyl disaster while also rubbing shoulders with the likes of Boris Grebenshchikov and the members of Kino (I may have emitted a faint yip of joy at that part, I was so excited to see Viktor Tsoi et al. in fictional "person").
If this sounds like some kind of nostalgic fanfic, there is a certain element of that: there's plenty for late-Soviet devotees to check off while nodding contentedly to themselves. But the book is much more than a checklist of names and events, telling as it does against this background what you might call the ultimate story of forbidden love. Jack is a brash, smooth-talking, good-looking Wyoming cowboy who's supposed to be such a quintessentially loud American that no one would ever take him for a CIA operative. At the same time, he leads a second double life as a bisexual at a time when that was considered to be a major security risk, and has to keep his real inclinations secret even as he's ordered to use his esoteric skill set to seduce Eton, a suspected homosexual in a country where being gay was even more taboo than in the US. Jack isn't conflicted about his sexuality, but he is increasingly conflicted about the duplicity it demands of him, as well as the risk it entails for others: he is supposed to seduce Eton, who may or may not be a KGB agent, flirt with their mutual friend Lara, and maintain flamboyantly obvious relationships with CIA-approved female American partners. Jack is a pretty self-centered guy in the beginning of the novel, but as his attachment to Eton grows, so does his awareness that the games he's playing have real consequences for other people.
As might be guessed from the preceding description, there's a lot to this book, and like Jack and Eton's relationship, it starts off slowly. A super-quick read it's not, but it successfully immerses the reader in its time period and in the heads of its main characters, and as the tension between Jack and Eton builds, so does the suspense. Readers in the historical know will be acutely aware of the major events looming for the unsuspecting characters, and may be hard pressed not to scream at them that they just need to hang on a little longer, just a little bit longer. The last few chapters, set in Berlin in the fall of 1989, are, like the time itself, breathlessly, nail-bitingly chaotic, as the characters scheme and race to get on the right side of a wall that's about to come down. A definite recommendation for fans of spy fiction, Soviet history buffs, and readers looking for an intense M/M love story.
My thanks to the author for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
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To his colleagues in the American Embassy in Moscow Jack Smith is a recently appointed junior officer with the USIA. In reality he’s a deep cover C.I.A. operative whose persona is that of a gregarious, friendly, and at times oblivious American, though he is no such thing. It turns out Jack is uniquely qualified for life as a spy. He’s a gay man who came of age in a less accepting era (I’m guessing he’s over 25 but under 30) and place. He grew up in an infelicitous household, complete with dead mother and an abusive, alcoholic, bigoted father. In short he knows how to hide in plain sight in spite of physically being a looker: tall & dark with cornflower blue eyes. All he wanted was an escape, a better life, a ranch in California, the reality of which the army and later the C.I.A. promise like a mirage in the desert.
Jack is tasked with befriending any and all comers and, when possible, recruiting future agents or being a dangle. He not only speaks fluent Russian but due to his own curious nature is knowledgeable of the mores and culture which endears him to the locals and he can’t help but return the affection. In spite of everything he’s wonderfully human and that’s one of the almost surprising things the author does so well: making the characters fully rounded individuals who live in a recognizable world and don’t necessarily subscribe the easy construct of spy, agent, villain, hero etc. Within Jack’s purview falls Eton May-Volkonsky, the son of an American defector and an aristocratic Russian; grandson of, in the world of the book, the Soviet originator of the Nuclear Winter Theory and a physicist in his own right. He’s also a musician, a poet, and generally a sweet soul who seems almost too fragile for the harsh world of the 1980’s USSR. Even so, he’s no wilting flower in need of rescue. In need of love? Who isn’t?
The book opens, during a performance of Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky at the Bolshoi Theater, the spy/thriller fans may think of the Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne movies but as the story progresses it put me in mind of the Bourne books and even of Le Carre, with the almost relentless emphasis on the daily minutiae of the life of a spy which paired with that of a bureaucrat is endless reports, counter intelligence runs to make sure you are or are not being shadowed by the “organs”, answering to office drones who are not in the field, and agencies who at times have contradictory agendas. In Jack’s personal circumstances he also has to work extra to keep up the facade of a heterosexual man. All of this is exhausting when all he wants is a weekend trip to Helsinki, have some meaningless sex, and watch the Live Aid concert.
I don’t know how much is too much to reveal in terms of the plot/events of the book. The bare bones would be that Jack comes in to the orbit of Eton, Lara, an aspiring actress and the daughter of the Deputy Minister of Culture, and their circle of friends. Though they’re all young, 20 or 21, they’re irresistibly attracted to Jack and all of his Americanness. For Eton, Jack is wide open spaces and a dream-like California. I had “Hotel California”, the whole album, on repeat for a week. Eton also feels an unspeakable attraction for Jack, one he can’t quite iterate even to himself. He has no point of reference for it. Jack feels the same but he’s so deep in the closet due to work, the times, and choice that a future together isn’t a foregone conclusion not least of all because almost all of Jack’s interactions with Eton are based on suspecting Eton of possibly being a current or future KGB agent and trying, albeit halfheartedly, to recruit him as an asset for the C.I.A. Needless to say those are less than ideal circumstances for anything meaningful to develop and though this is definitely not a romance, M/M or otherwise, the relationship between Eton and Jack does shape the course of the story and ultimately of their lives. Some might object to some of Jack’s interactions with Eton, more specifically how he treats him, like a potential agent, however he behaves entirely how a well trained case officer should.
The bulk of the story takes place during 1985 & 1986 at the height of a veritable spy tit-for-tat between the U.S. and the slowly collapsing USSR. These are perilous times, everything is in flux, the earth is shifting, who can be trusted? where do you draw the line? how close to the edge can you stand without falling over? how much of your authentic self can you sacrifice for what you believe to be the “greater good”? The denouement of the story takes us to the latter part of 1989 when the cracks that were evident within the power structures have become craters. Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, is blowing up, Denmark legally recognized the first same-sex marriage, and things in Berlin are about to take a sharp turn. Coincidentally Berlin is where our principals meet again after a lengthy separation. They haven’t gotten through the years unscathed and they can’t remain static.
I won’t lie. The book is long and initially it gave me pause but once I started it was like reading the diary of someone, Jack, with a life way more interesting than my own. The bulk of the story is told from Jack’s P.O.V. but there is a small section of journal entries from Eton, which is genius, because we get to be in the head of this complicated, smart, and beautiful Russian man, Jack’s counterpart and very much his equal. They both come from a place where they need to hide an important part of who they are. Such are the seeds of what promises to be a great relationship. Jack and Eton will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page.
Ultimately this wasn’t a 5 star read for me because I desperately wanted, nay needed another chapter, an epilogue, or any kind of coda to comfort my heart as to Jack & Eton’s future. That’s how much M. K. South makes these characters vibrant and alive. I cared about them like dear friends whose story I never wanted to end.
For those interested in genre classification I’d say this is more of a spy/thriller/action-suspense with a same-sex couple as part of the story, and all that entails in that place and time, but definitely not a romance, though there absolutely is a love story.
Full disclosure: M. K. South offered me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, however after reading the first chapter I realized I was all in and purchased my own copy because, whenever possible I like to support artists/writers and and don’t want any BS from Amazon. *fingers crossed*
The second major plot line in the book follows Jack’s secret homosexuality, something he hides desperately from the Company and his new friends. Things get even more complicated when he develops feelings for his main target. I really enjoyed the development of their romance, a beautiful, blossoming story juxtaposed against the harsh Soviet and American political clash of their time. Their moments together are short and hurried, fraught with the danger of discovery. Their relationship deepens and Jack realizes he’s in trouble for becoming emotionally involved with his target.
In addition to Moscow and other parts of Russia, the story visits American CIA headquarters in Washington, D.C. as well as Berlin, Germany. The last several chapters take place on both sides of the Berlin Wall and really give you an idea of the heightened political tension there. M.K. Smith does a wonderful job of blending detailed history with an exciting and breathtaking story of the spy world.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel! The surprising ending left me wanting to know more about how Jack and Eton’s Story would end.
I really enjoyed the plot of this story and how the story always moved forward toward something interesting and engaging. That helped keep my interest as the story progressed. This was especially important because it is a long story broke into multiple sections with a large number of chapters in each section. The characters were well-written and felt like real people. I was really invested in what happened to them and anxious about what would happen next. The dialogue was realistic and natural. I also enjoyed the romantic elements of this story. You don’t often see a M/M romance in spy fiction so I found that to be exciting and refreshing. This story was an interesting blend of romance, history, and page-turning thriller and should appeal to a wide range of readers.
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