Thursday, September 22, 2016

Librarian's Notes - a collection of stories set in Brooklyn.

Greetings, commies!
Another post for my Russian readers. Today I am sharing my thoughts about a recent collection of stories by a fellow bilingual writer Elena Litinskaya whose work I first sampled in the online literary journal that translates as The Drawing Room.

As an avid reader of Victorian era literature, I can appreciate the narrative technique Elena Litinskaya takes in delivering her collection of stories "Librarian's Notes". In the 19th century it was common to have a first-person narrator who was not the main character but rather a somewhat detached observer and a commentator. The said librarian is not just one particular person. It's a collective presence, a benevolent multi-headed dragon. We have many simultaneous conversations and points of view going on at the same time, but all those heads are tied to the same body. The heads do not always agree. Some are more sympathetic, while others are judgmental. They argue with each other, try to bit each other on the nose, but they create a unique harmony that's not always pleasant to the ear. It's disturbing and extremely engaging. It's like listening to an avant-garde symphony.

Obviously, the author, a librarian in real life - among other things  - is extremely well read and familiar with various narrative techniques. The author's erudition and her microscopic attention to detail, her ability to observe people and imagine their private lives and what is happening behind the facade. The librarian's job is very similar to that of a bartender or a priest. The tasks librarians perform often go beyond acquiring, organizing and lending books. Library patrons do not spill their souls to librarians to the same extent as they would, say, to a bartender, but there is that element of intimacy, because librarians know what kind of books you borrow. They say, you are what you eat, and same must be true for what you read. In fiction and film the figure of a librarian is often shrouded in mystery, and quite rightly so. After all, those people have access to your reading history, so they are in a position to draw certain conclusions about you. 

I want to say a few words about the setting of the collection. The stories are mostly set in the ethnically and ideologically diverse Brooklyn. Most of the library employees and patrons are immigrants with their own family sagas: Russians, Jews, Haitians, Italians, Irish. There are references to some events that had taken place in other parts of the world. Brooklyn feels like a sci-fi space ship floating in space with aliens from various planets on board. The author explores the familiar themes of addiction, ambition, mental illness, family conflict and above all, loneliness. The paradox is that we are feeling increasingly lonely in an increasingly connected world, where there is so little privacy. To quote a line from a famous song by the Beatles, "All the lonely people ... where do they all come from?" You could write a novel about each one of them. Being a librarian gives you an opportunity to tap into the loneliness of others. By recommending books, librarians hold certain power to alter the lives of their patrons. 

About the author:
Elena Litinskaya was born and raised in Moscow where she completed a course of Slavic studies. She has translated poetry from Czech. Has been living in the US since 1979. She spent 30 years working at Brooklyn Public Library. On the creative front, she has written seven volumes of poetry and prose.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Prescient - a Dystopian novel by Derek Murphy

I wanted to share this gem of a Dystopian novel by Derek Murphy, the founder of Urban Epic imprint. I got a free copy of Prescient as a download, and I highly recommend it to general readers, not even fans of sci-fi or Dystopia, as it raises some universal philosophical questions.

What if I told you you'd be dead in a year?
That a food corporation would experiment with genetic modification, and nearly destroy the human race. Would you believe me? Sounds crazy, right? Because nobody can see the future.

Nobody but me.
And what I see isn't pretty.
A dystopian wasteland.
Bodies rotting to nothing in the streets.
Humans on the brink of survival.
The wilderness eating away at what used to be my hometown.
A shadow organization rounding up children. Bands of warring tribes.

And let's not forget the modifieds - the zombie-like remains of what used to be the human race. Civilization is destroyed. There is no chance to undo the damage. No one can save the world... except me.

Because for me, it hasn't even happened yet. For me, it might never happen.
The only thing is, the more time I spend in the future, the less I want to erase it. Stopping the future might break me... I'd be erasing a face, a smile, that I never want to forget. 

My thoughts:
I got this book as a free download, and I'll probably be checking out more items by the same writer, even though I'm well out of the YA age bracket myself. As an author, you also have to be an actor, key grip, director of photography, etc. Derek Murphy is all of the above. No wonder he holds a PhD in literature. You have to be a psychologist too in order to generate plausible, sympathetic characters. As a male author, he writes rather convincingly from the point of view of a teen girl living in 2015-16. He knows what's important to an average female in that age bracket. Although, his heroine is not entirely typical. Having lost her mother at a young age, she had to grow up fast, even though she claims that she is immature next to her more socially visible and sexually assertive friend Crys. It's fascinating how maturity and success are measured among teens. Also, for a teen girl, his protagonist has a pretty rich vocabulary and a great deal of critical self-awareness. She is observant and articulate, even though she acknowledges that her interests are on par with those of her peers (making sure that lip gloss matches the sweater, not looking like a dweeb at a senior party, impressing a popular guy). It's very common for kids from a sheltered background to assume that their future is going to be cloudless and bright. So that assumption is being challenged when the main character has a disturbing time-travel experience that gives her a glimpse of dystopian wonderland.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A cross between Cosette and Lolita - review of Rachel Demeter's "The Frost of Springtime"

Greetings, commies!
I am more than a little depressed at the moment, because I've run out of books by this author to read. I was introduced to Rachel Demeter's work through a historical novel blog, and so far I have read all three of her novels. The Frost of Springtime is her first novel, and it doesn't have that green freshman :ugly duckling" feel at all. It's an incredibly eloquent, multidimensional and historically accurate debut.

On a cold Parisian night, Vicomte Aleksender de Lefèvre forges an everlasting bond with a broken girl during her darkest hour, saving her from a life of abuse and misery. Tormented by his own demons, he finds his first bit of solace in sheltering little Sofia Rose.

But when Aleksender is drawn away by the Franco-Prussian war, the seasons pass. And in that long year, Sofia matures into a stunning young womana dancer with an understanding of devotion and redemption far surpassing her age.

Alongside his closest friend, Aleksender returns home to find that "home" is gone, replaced by revolution, bloodshed, betrayaland a love always out of reach. Scarred both inside and out, he's thrust into a world of sensuality and violencea world in which all his hours have now grown dark, and where only Sofia might bring an end to the winter in his heart.

My thoughts: 
 So many authors who write romance spend a great deal of time and effort on crafting love scenes, but Rachel Demeter spends more time preparing the historical and esthetic ambiance. I cannot speak for all readers, but what happens inside the bedroom is predictable. It's what happens outside the bedroom that interests me. I am delighted that she chose to use the Franco-Prussian war as the backdrop for the novel. It's not a war that gets a lot of coverage from modern historical novelists. One classic who covered it extensively is Guy de Maupassant. Late 19th century was such a fascinating time for European culture. More and more women were entering the performing arts while retaining their "respectable" status. It became acceptable for women who were deemed virtuous and suitable for marriage to cultivate and exhibit their talents outside the social salons. The female protagonist Sofia Rose is a case in point. While many of her colleagues are still deemed morally marginal, she is regarded as chase and virtuous because she spends her nights at a religious convent. But don't be fooled by those sapphire eyes and ivory complexion. Sofia Rose is not a one-dimensional angel. Her Catholic convictions are tested when she develops an aching infatuation with her much older - and conveniently married - patron Alek Lefevre, who had once saved her from being stuck into a brothel by her mother. I give Alek a lot of credit for not trying to lock his ward away from the civilization, as another possessive father-turn-lover figure might. He encourages her to cultivate her dancing talent, but at the same time he is prone to fits of jealousy when young men show interest in her. The character of Sofia, like expensive perfume, has many ingredients and notes. You will recognize elements of Cosette from "Les Mis", Lolita and even Christine from "Phantom". I applaud the author for not shying away from the morally sensitive issue of a powerful man falling in love with his much younger ward. Sofia is not portrayed as a victim of exploitation. On the contrary, she is more of a perpetrator than her seen-it-all Alek. If you can appreciate a novel that challenges your notions of conventional morality, "The Frost of Springtime" is the novel for you.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review of "Connected Underneath" - a modern Jean Valjean & Cosette tale

Not long ago I interviewed Linda Legters, a creative writing instructor and author of a highly literary psychological thriller Connected Underneath. It is published by a press that specializes in GLBT fiction, although I must say, that element is not very prominent in the novel. It's not a piece of GLBT advocacy per se. The focus is on mystic/cosmic ties that connect the inhabitants of a sleepy small town in upstate NY.

Madena, upstate New York. Like any other small town, everybody keeps an eye on everybody else's business without recognizing the secrets that connect them. The wheelchair-bound Celeste conjures up lives from what she sees and thinks she sees while peering through binoculars from her kitchen fan vent. Fifteen-year old Persephone trades sex for tattoo sessions that get her high and help her forget her girlfriend doesn't love her. Theo was the high-school bad boy who couldn't have the respectable girl he adored from afar, but now, sitting behind the counter of the last video store in town, worries wretchedly about the restless daughter he never understood. Natalie, trying to grasp the last shreds of respectability, would do anything to forget the baby she gave up long ago, including betray her husband and son. Celeste, longing to connect, combines truth with fantasy, intervenes and interferes, finally understanding that things have gone terribly wrong and that she stands at the heart of disaster.Connected Underneath is a lyrical, scalpel-keen dissection of the ties that bind and of those that dissolve.

My thoughts:
This highly literary and complex novel is accessible to general audiences, but those readers with a solid foundation in the classics, especially William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Victor Hugo will get so much more out of it. Despite being less than 150 pages, this novel is not an easy-breezy read. You have to be able to digest the long sentences, follow the shifts in point of view and third versus first person narrative. There are many references to ancient Greek mythology and some creative usage of archetypes. What blew me away is the dichotomy of the inner voice versus spoken voice. The characters engage in lengthy, eloquent internal monologues, and when they open their mouths in real life, short, choppy sentences come out. That reminds us that people can be crude and rough and unbending on the outside and be very vulnerable and conflicted on the inside.

Now, I am not someone who absolutely needs a hero to root for in order to enjoy a work of fiction. I do not need to latch onto that nipple of fake positive energy. In fact, I am much more likely to attach myself to a grotesque character, and track his/her downfall. Theo and Persephone "Seph" are a father-daughter team that in a strange way remind me of Jean Valjean and Cosette. I must be in the .001% of the population who did not sympathize with that duo from "Les Miserables". That's the kind of heartless monster I am. But that's the beside the point. Just like Jean Valjean, Theo is an outcast - self-loathing, socially awkward and sexually repressed, looking towards his adopted daughter as an opportunity for redemption. And that's a really risky thing to do, putting your spiritual redemption into the hands of another person, especially a troubled teenage girl.

Which brings me to the character of Seph. I will not go as far as criticizing the author for creating an over-the-top character, but sometimes Seph comes across as a composite character instead of a credible, tangible person. It's almost as if the author had taken part in a contest: let's see who can create a most dysfunctional teenage female character. Let's see how much black hair dye and eyeliner we can slap onto her. Let's cover her up in tattoos. Let's make her addicted to pain and cutting. Let's make her a lesbian, but one who is willing to have sex with her adult male tattoo artist, which also puts her into the child prostitute category. I guess, there is a reason for that. Underneath all those dysfunctions and alterations, there is a human being that has a potential for being balanced and functional, who is capable of building healthy human relationships. We see a glimpse of that person. Unfortunately, Seph discovers that a little too late. She cannot find her real self underneath all that ink and scar tissue.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Jean Reinhardt - author of Irish Family Saga

Morning, commies! 
Today's guest is Jean Reinhardt, a bestselling Irish author specializing in family sagas. Irish history and family sagas are my two weaknesses. Combine the two? I'm there, smacking my lips! Today she joins us to talk about her pet peeves pertaining to Irish stereotypes in literature and the historical Irish-Spanish connection. 
MJN: Some of your book covers feature smiling children in contrast to the bittersweet content of your books (A Pocket Full of Shells and A Year of Broken Promises). Is that contrast deliberate?

JR: It wasn't deliberate for the first book. I used a photograph of my mother and her brother for the cover of A Pocket Full ofShells. They had given me the genealogical records that inspired the book and I have always loved that image of my mother with such a cheeky smile on her face.

My granddaughter posed for the next book and I wanted the cover to convey a sense of innocence and trust, which are compromised in A Year of Broken Promises.
For the third book I used a photo I took of my youngest grandson on a local beach as the tide was on its way in - making it a fitting image for the title, A Turningof the Tide.
I love the guarded look on my other grandson's face in the photograph I used for the fourth book, A Legacy of Secrets, it was just perfect for the title.

I've used an old photograph of my father as a young child, sitting next to his mother for Book 5: A Prodigal Return as this image relates very well to the story line.

MJN: You spent several years in Spain. Historically, Spain and Ireland have been allies on and off, with England being a mutual adversary. The most notable instance that comes to mind is Hugh O'Neil and Rory O'Donnell taking refuge in Spain after the famous Flight of the Earls. Did the people you met while in Spain bring up the question of Spanish-Irish camaraderie?

JR: Some people did remark on the way the Spanish and Irish tend to mix well. I think a lot of this is due to similarities in culture, rather than historical connections. The Spanish laid back way of doing things (or not doing them, lol) is something that Irish people are used to, so it doesn't irritate us to the same extent as it does other nationalities - like the German and Swiss residents in Spain, who are usually very strict timekeepers.

MJN: Tell me a bit about the state of publishing industry in Ireland. I heard that Liberties Press in Dublin has fallen on some hard times. Do you find that publishing independently gives you certain artistic latitude? Clearly, your books are very well received by your readers. 

JR: Irish publishers are beginning to take a chance on new authors because of the international success of writers like Eimear McBride and Donal Ryan, which is great. I think the independent publishers in Ireland are holding their own and thanks to them, we are seeing the work of some very talented new writers being made available. Some of these authors eventually get noticed by the big publishing houses because of the chance given them by smaller publishers. There are also quite a number of women now involved in publishing in Ireland, which is a good thing - of course I'm a little biased, being female.

I really like the freedom of choice that I have as an independently published writer, particularly where cover design and book format are concerned. As most of my sales are directly through Amazon and Createspace, I get a good percentage of the royalties, but this would not be the case if I had to share them with an agent and publisher.

MJN: I ask every Irish author this question. When dealing with American and global audiences, do you find yourself hedging against certain Irish stereotypes and preconceptions? What annoys you about non-Irish authors trying to write Irish themed fiction? As a Russian American, I get annoyed with matryoshka, Kremlin, vodka and balalaika images being slapped on book covers to give them that "air of authenticity", as you, I'm sure, get annoyed when you see covers splattered with shamrocks.

JR: It's the leprechauns that make me cringe but not too many authors add them to their Irish themed fiction covers - thankfully. I also roll my eyes when a character comes out with 'Begorrah' in a book or in a movie - Darby O'Gill and the Little People comes to mind. The impression of a land full of good Catholics and endless cups of tea no longer holds true (well, maybe the tea still does).

MJN: With the recent 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, I'm sure there has been many commemorative events. Unfortunately, I was not able to be in Ireland for this momentous occasion. I really wanted to, but my work and my family obligations did not allow for it. Did the commemorative activities live up to your expectation? 

JR: I think for the most part it did. I was impressed by how well music and art was used in commemorating the Rising. The documentaries were excellent, too. One thing that stood out for me was the way in which the public at the time were affected, in particular the deaths of 40 children, something I'm sad to say I wasn't aware of until this centenary anniversary.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Coloring Book for Grown-Ups - a review of Tatyana Yankovskaya's anthology

Dear commies and Russian speakers,
For your entertainment and enrichment, I am posting a review of an anthology by Tatyana Yankovskaya, Coloring Book for Grown-Ups. If you have any Russian speaking friends or family members, please consider getting this marvelous book as a gift.
I became acquainted with Tatyana Yankovskaya's literary works through an American speculative fiction e-zine Bewildering Stories. One of the editions featured an English translation of her short story "If She Had Not Learned How to Knit." The story resonated with me, so I started following the author's publications in various Russian venues. Every story is a skilfully crafted appetizer, with salt, sugar and spices in perfect balance. You do not walk away feeling stuffed or weighed down. You crave more. Naturally, when those appetizers are served on the same platter, they interact and harmonize with each other, leading to unforgettable multi-sensory experiences. You get the impression that the author's taste buds are hyperactive, able to capture the hints, tastes and aromas that are not accessible to a regular reader-taster. Her eye picks up every subtle detail. A gifted author should be in control not only of his/her words but senses as well.

Sometimes Yankovskaya leaves me feeling pangs of white envy because she was fortunate to witness the things I've only seen in passing, in a distorted form - the pomposity of the American pop culture of the 1980s. Yankovskaya got to experience the Reagan era, fascinating from every perspective - political, social and cultural. She had the opportunity to see those iconic action flicks on big screen. Those movies eventually made their way into the late-Soviet cinema houses, censored and badly dubbed. To me, an 80s kid, Reagan's America was the Holy Grail of western culture. I have a feeling that Yankovskaya's esthetic sensibilities were formed under the influence of American pop culture. Yankovskaya does not strike me as someone who likes to encapsulate her nostalgia, playing Pugacheva's hits over and over again. She expresses herself as a fully bilingual individual, as someone who integrated into the American mainstream successfully and harmoniously. Make no mistake, she still remembers the Brezhnev era. Those days are depicted quite vividly in her prose. The novella "Deja Vu" (not included in this particular collection - you can find it in her anthology "M&M") is a gem of corporate comedy. It takes a lot of skill to describe the political and sexual tempest within a research facility. The antics of the female protagonist will leave you laughing and gagging. The novella "A Would-Be Romance", written at the end of the 1990s, would win the approval of James Joyce - if this Irish genius understood Russian. 

Her writing is marked by sarcasm, so characteristic for an introspective, inquisitive person with an analytical mindset, but that that sarcasm is very humane, without a vindictive element. I've read enough immigrant fiction, and much of it is laced with one-sided bitterness and hostility towards "stupid America" with her "cardboard bread and watery, tasteless vegetables that don't come near to the ones growing on my summer property outside Chernigov." Then there is another extreme. You have people shuddering and foaming at the mouth while describing their horrible childhood/youth in "that bloody Soviet gulag." I am not saying that that angry immigrant recitative is entirely bereft of artistic value. Not at all. They have a right to exist and be read as examples of literature generated by the Russian diaspora. It is totally possible that they resonate with some readers. I must warn you though: you won't find anything of that sort in Yankovsakaya's anthology. She can describe the ugliest things with gusto, warmth and humor. You can taste her passion for life, yet she does not shove it down the reader's throat. She doesn't scream, "Life is beautiful!" but respects your right to pessimism. Heck, she managed to touch the heart of a hardened misanthrope like myself. And of course, her self-deprecation is very endearing. She refers to her short literary sketches, the equivalent of "flash" in English, as "half-formed embryos." But it's not uncommon for a mother to refer to her offspring in such disparaging terms. Russian mothers do tend to call their children as "slackers". 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Kindled Winter - Rachel Demeter's exploration of phobias and fetishes

A week before Christmas, Jeseca Reed sets off for rustic Blue River, Oregon—her childhood home and a vault of tender memories. However, fate takes an unexpected turn when she’s left stranded in the mountains’ vast, untamed wilderness. Desperate and alone, she seeks shelter at a cottage and finds herself in the arms of a mysterious stranger.
Dr. David Drake was once a renowned cardiovascular surgeon. But a devastating tragedy has left him scarred both inside and out, unable to use his hands to operate again. For the past five years, his Blue River cottage has been his sole escape—a safe haven where he can shut out the world, bury himself in his grief, and reunite with his son’s memory.

Together they are summer and winter. Fire and ice. And yet a poignant connection forms between them. Jeseca awakens David and thaws his heart with a romance hot enough to melt snow. But before David and Jeseca can fully embrace each other, they must wade through darkness and confront the ghosts of their pasts…

Equal parts steamy and heartfelt, A Kindled Winter brings the spirit of the holidays to life with a passionate story of second chances and healing love.  

My thoughts:
I have to give this young and intense author kudos for admitting that she has a deformity fetish and working it into a cozy holiday romance. A Kindled Winter is a second novel featuring a male protagonist sporting some horrific and mystifying injuries that, thankfully, do not affect his libido. Another must-read is her Gothic historical romance Finding Gabriel. I think the reason so many girls find the Beauty and the Beast story so compelling is because it's in our psyche to be fascinated by deformity and the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the sublime. Many young girls fantasize about tending to a wounded soldier. Rachel Demeter's protagonists did not acquire their respective deformities in a battle but rather a moment of weakness and/or forgetfulness. That adds poignancy and tragedy. A disfigured hero who got his injuries in a line of duty would be a little too polarizing and redundant - chocolate cake with chocolate sauce. To her credit, she shows how one careless act in one split second can wreck her entire life, what an unfairly high price one must pay for a relatively minor transgression. I also see a pattern of her vocalizing her phobias and fears. Both of her novels touch upon the subject of losing one's child. As far as I know, she is not a mother yet - hopefully will be in the near future - but I can tell that she had tried to imagine what it would be like to lose one's child to unnatural causes. As a writer, you need to have that universal empathy and imagine what it would be like to experience certain emotions you haven't experienced - and hopefully never will - in real life. I said this before, and I will say this again. I hope this author unfolds her wings and sores above the constraints of the romance genre, beyond what the predominantly female readership expects. There is a lot more latitude and room for maneuver with rape, battle and disaster scenes than with candlelit foreplay.