Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Forgotten Painting - another cheap sugary treat for the fans of Dan Brown

Every once in a while I will pick up a free Kindle book that's offered as part of a promotion. I firmly believe in paying for the author's work, so a part of me feels guilty when I cannot bring myself to write a gushing stellar review of a book I got for free. Reading The Forgotten Painting was another one of my attempts to give Dan Brown and his countless spinoffs a chance. Once again, I walked away with the feeling "Nah, M.J., this is NOT your genre." But hey, just because I am not a fan of Dan Brown, it doesn't mean that I should knock the book altogether. There are a few minor issues with the presentation that are unrelated to the plot or the style. The title is very unimaginative, and the cover suggests that the focal figure in the novella is not a painter but rather a musician. Anyway, don't mean to be nit-picky.

When celebrated author Jack Rogan stumbles upon a hidden diary, he can’t resist investigating. Honouring the last wish of a dying friend, he is irresistibly drawn into a web of intriguing clues, hinting at a long forgotten treasure.

Joining forces with Cecilia Crawford, a glamorous New York journalist, and Tristan, a remarkable boy with psychic powers, Jack soon finds himself on a precarious journey of discovery, exposing dark secrets from a distant, violent time, when life was cheap and cruelty ruled without mercy.

Meanwhile, Emil Fuchs, an enigmatic Swiss banker with a murky past, has an agenda of his own. Ruthless, and determined to defend his reputation at all cost, he threatens to expose a fraud that could destroy everything.
Will Rogan succeed? Can he find the forgotten treasure he has been searching for, or will it be lost forever, depriving the world of a masterpiece that belongs to all mankind?

My thoughts:
I am not going to comment on the plot. The summary says it all. I am going to comment on that unmistakably Dan-Brownesque style that readers either love or hate. Farago adopts every Brownesque gimmick and takes it to the extreme. Even if you don't have ADHD, you will feel like you. The narrative jumps across the globe, across the decades. You go from Nazi occupied Poland to New York to Australia. It's very easy to lose track of who is related to whom. And this is my "favorite" Dan Brown offense: the characters are talking heads with minimal psychological development and almost non-existent character arcs. They exist solely to open their mouths at the right time to feed the reader bits and pieces of background esoterica. Incidentally, they are all extremely accomplished, erudite and talented. Painters, musicians, art critics. Not a single plumber or bartender in the house. You just can't bring yourself to care to them, because you do not see their humanity behind all their accolades. But if you do not read novels for character development, then this one is for you. Art, Nazis, musicians, decade-hopping, secret societies and you have another metastatic Dan Brown knock-off. What's not to love? 

Friday, June 29, 2018

EuroMedika: behind every miracle is a blood sacrifice

Greetings, commies!I am pleased to announce my latest release - a retro-speculative medical thriller EuroMedika

Philadelphia, 1982Hazel, a truant teenager, takes refuge in a seedy alley off South Street dubbed “Nicotine Alley” under the protection of Logan Massey, a cannabis activist who dominates the alternative scene. Her most prized possession is an Olympus camera that supposedly has a soul and is able to capture the unseen. Seduced by Logan's anarchist ideology, Hazel aspires to expose the corruption inside the pharmaceutical industry. 

Martin Thomasson is Philadelphia's most eccentric medical student, whose body had been shattered in a car accident and reassembled by the city's top trauma experts using bolts, rods and wires to hold his skeleton together. Despite the constant pain and hallucinations, the young man is studying to become a surgeon under the auspice of Dr. Dean McArthur, a languid, marble-faced sociopath. Such wonders can only happen at EuroMedika, a mysterious and eerie facility where chemical formulas and religious dogma mingle in a Petri dish. 

These two worlds collide when Hazel sets off to infiltrate EuroMedika and bring down Dr. McArthur. Her quest proves to be short lived, as the overreaching urchin quickly realizes that she is no match for a mad scientist. When she finds herself framed for a string of crimes, all of her high principles fly out the window. To save herself, Hazel must give in to Dr. McArthur's demands— which go beyond sexual favors—and assist him in a secret experiment with her old friends as test subjects. Martin Thomasson, whose loyalty to the institute has begun to waver, could very well be her only hope for salvation. Wandering the sinister glass halls of EuroMedika, she learns that behind every miracle there is a blood sacrifice.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Dorchen: A Childhood Lost in War-Torn Germany

About the book
Dorthea Maria Dietrich ("Dorchen" to her family) was just a child of eleven when Germany declared war on Poland in September 1939. She was an ordinary German schoolgirl from an average family thrust into the extraordinary circumstances of war. Her memoir vividly describes the price she, her family, and all the German people paid for Hitler's ambition. Relived through her memories, it is truly a story of childhood innocence lost, but also of survival through grit and courage. She endured air raids, bomb shelters, military training, capture, imprisonment, rape and harrowing escape. The author has created a razor-sharp, clear-eyed and tense narrative about her life during this frightening time, as well as the story of her early struggles as a German war bride settling into a new life in America. This is Dorchen, and she is a remarkable woman.

My thoughts
This book was recommended to me by the Historical Novel Society on Facebook. I asked the members to recommend a WWII memoir written by one of the Germans. There are numerous memoirs by the Holocaust survivors that are widely publicized and discussed. Until recently, it seemed almost distasteful to talk about the experiences of German children who found their lives turned upside down. Anne Frank's diary is still considered one of the monumental accounts that overshadows all others. In fact, I had a few fellow Russians sneer and say, "Who cares about the experiences of a girl from the Hitler Youth?" Personally, I don't like to sneer at anyone's experience. I don't believe that there is such thing as a "secondary experience". I was grateful for the opportunity to see WWII through the eyes of an ordinary German girl, feel her confusion and ambivalence as she was forced to make gut-wrenching choices. I really hope that those who read this book do so without prejudice or grudges. Try not to roll your eyes when Dorchen describes unfortunate events (like having family dogs put down) that seem trivial in the scheme of a global tragedy but nevertheless are extremely traumatic to a child. For a schoolgirl who had never seen a concentration camp, it must have been horrifying to see her father take her beloved dogs into the woods to be shot and buried. It takes her father quite a bit of effort to assure her that she is not next on the list to be shot. That was just one of her first run ins with the war. After experiencing hunger and anxiety, after losing several family members, she goes on to join the army against her parents' wishes and proves herself a rather incompetent soldier. Luckily, she never sees actual combat - the war ends. Yet Dorchen's misfortunes are far from over as she finds herself captured by the Allies. The narrative style is very simple, candid, unembellished. She conveys her feelings without any unnecessary adjectives. Her memoir is a very humbling and eye-opening read for those interested in the German youth experience. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

"Restless in LA" by Robin Finn - a kaleidoscope of first world problems

Greetings, commies!
As I am approaching my 40th birthday this summer, I cannot help but wonder what other middle-aged women are doing behind closed doors, especially those from a different socio-economic strata. Given that I am ridiculously happy in my marriage (after 20 years of being with the same man), I often wonder about the plight of "desperate housewives". Please consider reading Restless in LA. Do not be deceived by the flippant estrogen-loaded cover. It's a serious, often critical piece of women's fiction. 

It was an innocent online flirtation. Until it wasn't.

Alexandra Hoffman thinks she has it all together. She lives with her work-obsessed husband Jason and their three challenging children in upscale Los Angeles. She never meant to “friend” her old boyfriend, Matt Daniels. She hasn’t seen him in twenty years. But as Alex’s fortieth birthday approaches, she finds herself re-connecting with Matt online—and re-reading her college journal, which details their intense connection and unresolved ending. But Alex’s hands are full with the kids, one of whom she just can’t help, no matter how hard she tries.

Lonely and alienated by the helicopter moms, and from Jason who is never around, Alex’s flirtation quickly moves from on-line to real-world. Alex realizes—too late—that she cannot trust herself. When she meets Matt for dinner, the attraction is undeniable. And when he touches her face, it’s electric. As her life spirals out of control, she clings to her free-spirited life coach, Lark, to make sense of the mess she’s made. But Lark’s advice is clear: Alex must confront her past and find the courage to face her future, even if it means risking everything. 

My thoughts:
I derived sadistic pleasure out of this novel. The main character/narrator is exactly the type of person I like to ridicule with my immigrant friends over shots of vodka. You know the type: a neurotic, vapid LA housewife with her minivan, yoga classes, anxiety pills, a whiny anonymous blog, a hippie life coach and a string of overbooked, overdiagnosed, overmedicated children. Alexandra Hoffman is an iconic figure from one of those "Real Housewives" shows. She is the kind of woman that squeamishly winces when she hears an accent, but then she wrings her hands and whimpers when ostracized by the women of her social class due to her son's behavior issues. (I guess she expects a medal for driving her kids to activities and therapies.) I know the type, because we have so many of those on the East Coast. And if you are a hard-working, self-servicing, meant-and-potatoes first generation American mama like myself, you will have little sympathy for the likes of Alexandra Hoffman. And yet, you will find yourself sympathizing with her at times. You see, even she gets those moments of lucidity when she becomes painfully aware of the vapidness of her own existence, of the fact that her "skinny fat" body is aging and her parenting efforts are not paying off. Beneath all that California flakiness and suburban ennui, there is a redeemable human being - even if that redemption comes in the form of an affair with an old boyfriend. "Restless in LA" is a brilliant piece of chick lit that will stir a wide range of feelings, from gloating contempt to compassion.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Demoted: a Cormac McCarthy take on WWII

Greetings, commies!
If you are looking for an amazing idol-crashing, cliche-defying WWII film, do not miss an unfairly obscure film Demoted. It raises so many moral questions about the value of individual life and pledge of obedience. 

1943. A young platoon commander refuses to follow an order of frontal attack; he doesn't want to send his soldiers against the enemy machine-guns and get them killed. A battalion commander rips off his shoulder straps and sends him to the military tribunal. But the war is everywhere and the demoted officer and his escorts have to start an unequal fight with the enemy. 

My thoughts:
My husband and I have watched every WWII movie under the sun, of variable qualities, so it's a problem to find new films to quench our insatiable addiction. Imagine how thrilled we were to find this relatively obscure gem (thank you, Amazon Prime). I was totally blown away by the dour candor of the film, a quality that I, a cynic and misanthrope, can appreciate. The film explores the ugly and the depraved aspects of military life, the stuff you would not find in Soviet era textbooks. It touches upon such taboo subjects as desertion, incompetence, corruption, mental illness and cannibalism. Yes, you got that right. People eating people. Something you wouldn't see in Soviet produced films spanning 1940-1980s. This atmosphere in this movie reminds me of Cormac McCarthy's writing: surreal, nightmarish, apocalyptic, claustrophobic. Imagine "The Road" taking place in snow-clad Russia in 1943. 

I don't know how to put this nicely, but ... try taking your SATs after a lobotomy. That pretty much describes the former Soviet Union's readiness for an armed conflict with Hitler's Germany. Given that the best generals had been killed off by Stalin, the Soviet army was in a state of bewilderment. Confused commanders giving confusing orders. Soldiers dying right and left without any purpose. If you were a soldier, you were screwed either way. Either you get shot by the enemy, or you get shot by your own "brilliant" commanders for insubordination. And if you are a student in the late Soviet era school system, you get crucified by your teachers for questioning the competence and heroism of the Soviet leaders. For me, as a natural dissenter, it was hard to sit through those patriotic, propaganda-loaded flicks featuring humorous, shrewd, abnegating boyish soldiers who died on the battlefield humming folk tunes - think "Only Old Men Are Going to Battle". On some instinctive level I felt that the reality of the Soviet experience was a lot grimmer than the campy ensemble of boy heroes. Fortunately, 30+ years later, we are free to reexamine the past and reevaluate the idols. Brutal, unembellished, unpalatable realism is replacing the patriotic propaganda in war cinema. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Saltykov's widow: the mother of all sadistic bosses

Salutations, commies!

Raise your hands if you have a horror story about a tyrannical female boss. Don't be shy. This commie won't tell on you, as she has horror stories of her own. You know what I'm talking about. That ice-and-estrogen queen whose glance makes your stomach ulcer bleed. The stuff of Nanny Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada. Sure, Hollywood can turn those stories into dark comedies. It's entertaining to watch them on screen. However, standing in front of a boss like that is not so funny. Here is a piece of history to make you feel better and hopefully give you some perspective. We Russians have a special title for such bosses "Saltychiha", translated as Saltykov's widow. 

Darya Saltykov (1730-1801), née Ivanova, was a Russian aristocrat, a notorious sadist and serial killer who had tortured and killed over a hundred of her serfs, mostly young woman. Historians compare her to the earlier Hungarian "Blood Countess" Elizabeth Bathory. 

Strangely enough, her early years did not foreshadow any travesties. Before marriage she was a reclusive, deeply religious girl who had toyed with the idea of entering a convent. Her father, however, had different plans for her. He married her off to Gleb Saltykov, a prominent aristocrat. On the surface, the marriage was stable and functional. Darya Saltykova was perceived as the embodiment of social propriety and moral virtue. The golden couple had two sons, Theodore and Nicholas. 

However, after her husband's death, the 26 year old widow started showing sadistic inclinations. Nobody really knows what triggered the switch in her psyche, pushing her to acts of unspeakable cruelty. Her rural estate became a torture camp. Darya inflicted the cruelest of punishments for the slightest of transgressions. Endowed with impressive physical strength, she would beat her servants until death, using her favorite tool: a block of firewood. When exhausted, she would delegate the job to one of her house guards. Several of her servants had been flogged to the point of exsanguination. Other, more elaborate methods, included pouring boiling water over her victims or tying them up naked to a tree in the middle of winter. 

Many complaints about the atrocities on her estate were ignored. The petitioners were punished for snitching. Darya Saltykova was chummy with the authorities, who looked the other way. Eventually, a few relatives of the murdered serfs went straight to Empress Catherine II. As reluctant as Catherine was to quarrel with a prominent noblewoman, she felt like she had to take action. After a long and tedious investigation, Darya Saltykova was found guilty of 38 murders (the real number exceeds 100).

Since death sentence was abolished in Russia, Madame Saltykova was sentences to life in prison in the cellar of the Ivanovsky Convent in Moscow, "without daylight or human contact". Being incredibly healthy, the murderous noblewoman had lasted 30 years, having outlived the Empress. 

There is an impressive Russian series called "The Bloody Mistress". Unfortunately, it not available with English subtitles yet. But do not despair. One day the series will be available to the English speaking audiences. 

Next time you feel like complaining about your boss, think of the 100+ serfs tortured to death by Saltykov's widow. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Triumph of a Czar - a stellar alternative history about the Romanovs

Greetings, commies!
I came across this gem by reading a discussion in the Historical Novel Society. If you love alternative history along the lines of The Man in the High Castle, do not miss Triumph of a Czar

Triumph of a Tsar is a work of alternate historical fiction in which the Russian Revolution is averted, and the hemophiliac Alexei, son of Tsar Nicholas II, comes to the throne. In August, 1920, sixteen-year-old Alexei is enjoying his birthday celebrations when Nicholas dies suddenly. Overnight, Alexei becomes tsar of an empire that covers one-sixth of the world’s landmass. The Great War is over, but Russia is still suffering from the devastation and poverty that it brought. Communists such as Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky view the political situation as ripe for revolution, but they realize that the popular Alexei stands in their way. To make matters worse, Alexei’s hemophilia, the disease that has threatened him his whole life, returns to haunt him. With his life in constant danger from internal threats, Alexei must also navigate the external threats of fascism and Adolph Hitler. Slowly, Hitler’s menace increases throughout Europe until he tries to kill Alexei himself. Only then does Alexei realize that another World War is the only way to stop his German enemy.

My thoughts:
The October Revolution is regarded by many as one of the greatest tragedies in Russian history, and the murder of the imperial family one of the cruelest regicides. (Growing up in the 1980s in what is now the former USSR I was told the opposite - that it was an act of justice). Tamar Anolic creates a gorgeous, eloquent, convincing revenge fantasy.  I am so grateful for this novel, because it fills a gap in the pantheon of alternative history. My husband and I are both into alternative history and have often discussed the various what-if scenarios. What if the Russian Revolution never occurred? Or what if the Whites had won the Russian Civil War? I am so glad that someone has finally written an alternative history novel about post WWI Russia. Czar Nicholas II is given a dignified natural death. His beautiful daughters go on to marry and have offspring of their own. And his son Alexei, the fragile hemophiliac child so coddled by his mother becomes the next Czar at the age of 16. The first thing he does is shoot Lenin and fire the chief of police for negligence. His actions may seem shocking and impetuous, but they really make a lot of sense. The teenage monarch certainly does not pull any punches. He is more prepared to roll up his sleeves and embrace his new role. His determination to serve his empire and bring it on par with other Western European nations often makes him forget about his own illness. At times he tries to downplay the severity of his affliction. At any given moment, he is one cut or bump away from bleeding to death. So he cannot afford to be impetuous. His illness has taught him self-restraint. On one hand Alexei had been coddled his whole life, but on another hand he had been forced to mature faster. It's a two edged sword. It is common for people who are used to deal with a life-altering illness. 

I am very, very finicky about historical accuracy and cultural authenticity. I've read too many novels and seen too many movies depicting a cartoonish cardboard Russia speckled with cliches, and this novel definitely gets my stamp of approval.  So many authors think it's enough to throw in references to bears, balalaikas, samovars and ushanka hats to create a sense of authenticity. Thankfully, this author does not resort to that. He does not need to rely on cliches. His knowledge of the era shines through his sharp, eloquent prose. For an alternative history novel to be effective, it has to be rooted in reality. The author has to be a political scientist and a military strategist. I cannot believe that this gem was not picked up by some major publisher like Random House. I would love to see it turned into an Amazon series.