Tuesday, July 16, 2019

"Our Boat" - Soviet era's most romantic song

Greetings, commies!

Courtly romance is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of post-WWII Soviet culture. Think again! The 1946 blockbuster The First Glove is a great example of a counter-trend project. The world was weary of tragedy and violence. It needed a touch of comedy, tenderness and humor. The First Glove tells the story of an aspiring boxer who falls in love with a rhythmic gymnast. What makes that film stand apart is the famous romantic song Our Boat. The leading actress, Nadezhda Cherednichenko died just last month at the age of 91. She looks like a mixture of Maureen O'Hara and Judy Garland. She confirmed to the Western beauty standards and had an affinity for the West. It's not surprising that USA was the place of her death. Her performance of Our Boat transcends all linguistic and political barriers. The song itself dates to the 1930s.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Inseparable: the Titanic of Chernobyl stories

Hello, commies!
If you enjoy the recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl but were overwhelmed by the amount of science jargon, there is a lesser known Russian language 4 episode miniseries from 2013 called Inseparable (original title is "Fireflies"). This particular project offers a more balanced mix of science, politics and human drama. There is an actual central love story that will make you think of the one in Titanic. A privileged girl and an underprivileged boy fall in love against the backdrop of a major disaster. Hm.... Sounds familiar? Allie is a straight A student who comes from a family of doctors and army officers. Paul, a young soldier, is an orphan who was raised in an orphanage. I must point out, for a ward of the state, Paul is impressively articulate, temperate and well-mannered, while Allie comes across as impulsive and entitled at times. Under normal circumstances these two probably would not have even met. The world's greatest nuclear disaster erases their socioeconomic differences. They find themselves alone in the abandoned city of Pripyat, caught in a dream world that is incredibly surreal, creepy, lyrical and humorous at the same time. Tragedy and dirty humor go hand in hand.  

It's not really fair to compare the two projects, but there are definite benefits to watching a Chernobyl show made by ethnic Slavs. As much as I appreciated the research behind the HBO series, you just can't find those broad Slavic faces in English and Scottish pubs. If you happen to be a native Russian speaker, you will catch yourself smiling at the linguistic nuances and the references. 

What I loved about Inseparable was that the writers do not pull any punches. No sugar coating, no silver lining, no last minute rescues, no miraculous cures. The fatalistic misanthrope in me is very pleased.  

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Poppet Nicole: a paranormal romance for woman-haters

Greetings, commies!

It is no question that I am a bit of a misanthrope and a traitor to my own sex, so reading a romance novel with utterly repugnant female characters feeds my soul the fuel it needs to spout ashes ;-) Maggie Tideswell, a South African romance writer, provides that fuel. There's nothing like selfish, predatory women falling into their own traps. Poppet Nicole is the second book in her Moragh saga.

She'll never finish falling in love, but she has priorities no one understand.
Nicole’s story continues in Poppet Nicole. Will she get her revenge for the abominable way Joshua, her fiancé of four years, treated her when he brought home a stranger he introduced as his wife? 
Even though she’d admit it to no one, Nicole knows she made a hash of things. She should have married Joshua when she had the chance, but instead, she’d gone and fallen pregnant by another man. And then her father disinherited her, leaving everything she’d been brought up to expect to own one day, to Joshua, with the instruction to marry Nicole within a month. As he isn't really married to Holly, nothing is standing in his way.
Without warning, Ned, the father of her unborn child, comes back into her life to complicate everything. Him, she wants with a passion, but first, she has to reclaim her inheritance. Joshua has no choice but to marry her as her father instructed. Then she’d divorce him and claim half of everything he owns. As an independently rich woman, she'll let Ned sweep her off her feet.
Just how far is Nicole prepared to go to get her own way? Will Ned stand by while she tries to ruin another man’s life?

My thoughts:
Heads up: I am not a reader of romance of any sort, so to me, picking up a romance novel is like a vegan going to a steak house, so I am reviewing this work as an outsider. I surmise the author was raised on the works of Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte sisters. Her contemporary romances have a strong Gothic vibe. I did not read the first novel in the series, so reading the brief summary helped gain a better of understanding of the characters. In "Poppet Nicole" the title character reminds me of Catherine Earnshaw from "Wuthering Heights". Entitled, selfish, with a strong sense of victimhood, she is not your typical vanilla romance heroine. She is eager to take but gives very little in return and refuses to accept the consequences for her actions. It is very hard to sympathize with her or relate to her, but nobody said that the main female character has to be likable. 

To an average American reader, the author's language might sound a bit too proper and formal. It's important to understand that South Africa is a very stratified country, and the way people behave and talk is linked to their ethnicity and social class. 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Dragon Marks Eight - a Southwestern noir by Gary Clifton

Greetings, commies!
I have a new gem to share: Dragon Marks Eight by Gary Clifton. I admit that I have not read many noir novels, but this one is so superb from the psychological and literary standpoint, that it will tickle your taste buds and your nerve endings. 

In the mid 1980s, Kobok, a hard drinking, cynical, veteran ATF Agent, is caught between an inept supervisor and a system that demands results to avoid transfer to Butte, Montana, or a duty station where mail comes monthly by tramp steamer. Under the gun to produce a major case, he’s summoned to an arson homicide in an affluent Dallas neighborhood where the only survivor is the ex-stripper wife of the victim, the owner of a brassiere factory.

The ghastly crime scene discloses two pre-teen sons also dead in the debris. Kobok discovers a child’s journal depicting what appears to be a game involving mythical characters and a twelve-sided dice. Thinking it might shed light on lives of a dysfunctional family, he tucks the journal away, but it soon drifts out of mind.

With a rookie agent partner, weeks out of the academy, and Bull Hooper, a hard-nosed, kick-ass Dallas Homicide Detective, he wends his way along the seamy underside of Dallas, through strip clubs, an outlaw biker gang war, a variety of back alley characters, and sudden, deadly violence. In the end, he realizes with sobering clarity that what seems to be, often isn’t, and the journal scribbling of a child exposed to horrors beyond his comprehension, could be more insightful than any reasoning mind could possibly understand.

My thoughts:
The fans of James Elroy and Mickey Spillane should add "Dragon Marks Eight" to their collection of urban noir fiction. There is something to be said for novels set before the era of the internet. There is an extra layer of secrecy and anonymity - and more opportunities for fraud. Kobok is a seasoned but not entirely jaded cop who is not above indulging his own whims and sexual cravings while on duty, a cynic with a conscience. The author's narrative style is blunt, graphic, unapologetically masculine - definitely not for those who have panic attacks when women are "objectified". Definitely not for those who crave a "strong, empowered female character". Although, there is a very competent female forensics doctor, but she is an exception to the pattern. As a female reader, confident in my femininity and human dignity, I don't find that style offensive at all. However, those readers who are sensitive to cruelty to children and description of mutilation should probably take a few anti anxiety pills. There are very graphic scenes of human combustion. Overall, this novel is a decadent, sensual treat - like a good shot of scotch with a cigar.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Unshelled: a Tale of the Nutcracker - set during WWI

Guten tag, commies!

Just because it's spring, doesn't mean you can't enjoy a Nutcracker story. I am pleased to share my latest monstrosity. After years of deliberation, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and write a modernized, realistic adaptation of a classic fairy tale. Unshelled is a retelling of a Christmas staple "Nutcracker". The story takes place during the Great War. If you know anything about me and my work, you can always count on me to take a beloved heart-warmer and make it sick and twisted.

I am fond of the cover because it reminds me of the latest Rammstein video - very timely and very appropriate. Hats off to my talented husband Herr Neary for the cover photo and the stunning model of German descent Chris Brooke for his depiction of a shell shocked soldier. 

West Germany, 1915. 

Marie Stahl, a stoic combat nurse in her late twenties, unhindered by her own ailments, converts her family countryside estate into a convalescent home for soldiers slapped with the controversial diagnosis "shell shock". Her only helpers are two taciturn factory girls of Slavic descent. Marie's altruistic endeavor brings on the wrath of her embittered brother Fritz, a Sergeant-Major in the Germany army. Having lost a foot in the trenches, he considers these men traitors, deserving of execution, not sympathy. The one he detests most is Christoph Ahrens, an engineering student nicknamed "Nutcracker" for his unusually strong jaw. 

Despite her morose disposition, Marie finds herself intrigued by the haunted youngster, who turns out to be a pupil of her godfather, Dr. Drosselmeyer, a physics lecturer at the University of Cologne and a military technology pioneer. As Marie and Christoph grow closer, he confides in her about his nightmares. The most horrifying images are not of his experiences in the trenches but of Germany's future—the old country they have been proud to serve will not exist twenty years later. As a woman of science, Marie rejects the notion of clairvoyance, although a part of her cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to his predictions.

In the meantime, the atmosphere at the convalescent home grows more hostile as the patients turn on each other and Marie begins to question her altruism.

Set against the violence and paranoia of the Great War, Unshelled is a gritty, sinister retelling of the Christmas classic.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

"Diabolus in Musica" - Phantom of the Opera Meets Dr. Faustus

Hello, commies!
Diabolus in Musica artfully blends high art and horror (just like in real life). Everyone knows that the devil wears Prada and loves beauty. 

A struggling tenor in a third-rate German opera house, Jack Horn feared his singing career was over. Then he met Belinda Fausse. World-renowned diva, beautiful temptress, she promised him fame and passion beyond his wildest imaginings. And she taught him well—until her private plane disappeared over the Atlantic.

Now Jack lives alone in Belinda's house, haunted by the night. For that is when she returns to him, taking his voice, his body, his being. And he is possessed by her, drowning in her perfume, suffocating in her embrace. Then friends and rivals begin to die, in ghastly, mysterious ways—and Jack realizes that no prayer is ever answered without a sacrifice... 

My thoughts
Brent Monahan's "Diabolus in Musica" will leave you with a strange deja vu feeling in a good way. The author weaves familiar archetypal themes of vanity, temptation and sinister contracts with the dark side. Be prepared to hear the echos of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Faustus". A handsome, vain though only moderately talented tenor with a telling name Jack Horn trades places with Christine from "Phantom of the Opera". His "Phantom" mentor is a stunning, mysterious, elusive diva by the name Belinda Fausse, whose career suggests that she is pushing 40 though she doesn't look a day over 25. When Belinda takes Jack as her lover and voice student, he has an unsettling feeling that there are dark powers at play and that there is a price to pay for this new skill and knowledge he is about to gain. 

I happen to come from a family of classical musicians. My birth father is a former opera singer, so I am familiar with many of the musical terms. But even if you are new to the world of opera, the author does a good job explaining the jargon without the characters sounding like "talking heads" (something Dan Brown and his imitators are guilty of).

What I like about this novel is that there isn't a lot of in-your-face gore. The horror is more suggestive than explicit. So if you can appreciate a modern gender-bender "Phantom of the Opera" type story, "Diabolus in Musica" is for you!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Prince Rogvolod: the Donald Trump of pagan Russia

Rogvolod with daughter Rogneda
Every modern political figure has its historical "twin". As a historical novelist, I love drawing parallels between present day political figures and their doppelgangers of the past. Today's guest of honor is Prince Rogvolod of Polotsk (circa 920-978), who bears some similarities to Donald Trump. 

Rogvolod (aka Rögnvaldr), a son of a noble Swedish couple, was the first documented ruler of Polotsk (modern day Belarus), a city situated on both banks of the Dvina river. Not much known about his childhood,  other than he was born around 920. Several chronicles suggest that he seized the land and had a fairly firm grip on it. 
Images of Krivich people reconstructed from the skulls

Before his arrival, the city was in it embryonic form, consisting of scattered settlements. His arrival made quite an impression on the indigenous Krivich population. (The etymology of the tribal name is up for debate. Some historians claim that it stems from the word "crooked/twisted", hinting to some birth defect, while others suggest that it stems from the word "blood".) Most of the Krivich people were artisans: blacksmiths, iron workers. Women had the same rights as men and were expected to excel in the same trades. They possessed all the skills necessary for building a city, and now they had a leader to mobilize them. Rogvolod invested heavily into urban development. He recognized the opportunities for trade and industry that the riverfront location offered. Thanks to Rogvolod, Polotsk was placed on the map as an actual center for trade. 
A coin depicting Rogvolod and Rogneda

Just like Donald Trump, Rogvolod was obsessed with building towers and walls. He had an elaborate system of labyrinths in his city. He used high quality wood for the key edifices. The name of his wife is unknown, but she did not play the key figure in his family life. The centerpiece of his nuclear family was his beautiful and arrogant daughter Rogneda. He also had two young sons, but their names and ages were not recorded. Understandably, Rogvolod was not the world's humblest man. His daughter inherited his personality traits. Rogneda knew that her purpose in life was to help her father form an advantageous alliance. She also had considerable latitude when it came to choosing her spouse. Rogvolod loved his daughter and wanted her to be happy, so he gave her a lot of say when it came to reviewing various candidates. 
Rogvolod consulting Rogneda

Rogneda was particularly keen on one candidate: Prince Yaropolk of Kiev. Apparently, he was up to her standard. Alas, that union was not to materialize, as Yaropolk fell victim to a court intrigue and was assassinated. His younger illegitimate half-brother Vladimir, born to a servant girl from the Drevlian tribe, decided to try his luck. Rogneda rejected him on the grounds of him being illegitimate. "I shall not marry a bastard born to a servant girl!" Vladimir was infuriated by the rejection, but not nearly as infuriated as his maternal uncle, General Dobrynius, the older brother of the said servant girl. Dobrynius urged Vladimir to make Rogneda pay for her arrogance. In 980 Vladimir assembled an army consisting of Slavs, Varangians and even a few Asiatic tribes and stormed the city of Polotsk. After taking the city, he raped Rogneda in front of her whole family and then murdered her parents and younger brothers. The city was destroyed, and Rogneda was forced to marry Vladimir. There is a record of her lamenting, "I am deeply saddened. My father is dead, and his city overtaken by the invaders.  All because of me, because of my pride." She blamed herself for the tragedy that befell her family. 
Krivich people in tribal apparel

At the very top of the post is a very eloquent depiction of Rogvolod and his daughter by a contemporary illustrator. An average viewer will be appalled by the fact that Rogneda is portrayed as much smaller in size and sitting at her father's feet, like a little dog. Well, we have to look deeper, beyond modern day stereotypes. Ancient Slavs and Scandinavians did not regard feet as dirty. Feet represented freedom, mobility and accomplishment. Rulers wore ornate boots to draw attention to their feet. Very often, it was the most ornate and costly part of their apparel. There is also a memorial coin depicting Rogvolod in his armor with his hand on his daughter's shoulder. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Malusha: the runt who gave birth to a prince

Greetings, commies and SJWs!

For your enlightenment, a bit of women's history that explores, predictably, the issues of gender, ethnicity, faith and social status. Today's heroine is Malusha, the mother of Vladimir the Great aka Vladimir the Baptizer - the Russian prince responsible for Russia's massive conversion from paganism to Christianity. 

Let's take a moment to examine the historical canvas. The 10th century was an exciting time to be a Slav, regardless of what faith your adhered to. Princess Olga (d. 969) is considered Russia's first openly Christian monarch. At that time, the new monotheistic religion was garnering some interest among the Slavs and was regarded as somewhat of a hipster fad. Most Christian influences came from the Byzantium, but there were some Catholic diplomats and missionaries trickling in from the West. As Olga's name suggests (a version of Helga), she was of Scandinavian extraction. Her husband Igor was also Scandinavian and a pagan, as were their children. Olga did not force her beliefs upon her family, because she believed that conversion had to be gradual and voluntary. Her sons did make fun of her for endorsing such strange notions as monogamy and chastity - concepts that were unfathomable to healthy male Russian noblemen. 

When Igor was killed by his subjects in 945, Olga took over Kiev. The people behind Igor's death were Drevlians, a tribe whose name translates as "forest dwellers", a community of hunters and trappers. Princess Olga had a long-standing vendetta against them for having murdered her husband. Pushing aside her Christian concepts of forgiveness, she exacted revenge against their communities. Among the enslaved captives were Malusha "the runt"and her older brother Dobrynius, orphaned children of a Drevlian prince. Instead of executing them, Olga took them into her court. Thanks to his powerful physique and fortitude, Dobrynius went on to become a soldier and gained certain prominence, autonomy and authority. 

Malusha was trained as Olga's personal assistant. Her job was to take care of Olga's furs and jewels. The girl was very small, dainty and beautiful, and the middle-aged princess developed motherly feelings for her. It is rumored that Olga was grooming Malusha for conversion to Christianity. Those plans went out the window when Olga's own son Svyatoslav had a fling with Malusha. When Olga found out that her servant was pregnant by her own son, she became enraged and exiled Malusha into the countryside. It was there that Vladimir was born. Despite his illegitimate origin, Vladimir went on to become one of Russia's most influential rulers. Nobody really expected him to rise to power when he was a young child. 

Malusha's fate remains a mystery. It is certain that she did not take part in her son's upbringing. Vladimir was taken away as a toddler and placed under the supervision of his maternal uncle. Dobrynius, whose name ironically means "gentle soul" was a rather violent fellow in real life. As a former slave, he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and became outraged whenever someone brought up his past. His goal was to purge all softness and sensitivity from his nephew's heart. In fact, Vladimir's youth is marked by debauchery and cruelty. Before converting to Christianity, he was a notorious pillager and womanizer, who did not always ask for consent. His tumultuous past did not prevent the Orthodox church from proclaiming him a saint after he initiated massive conversion to Christianity in 989. 

And what became of his mother? Some sources suggest that Malusha did convert to Christianity and became a nun. There are several speculative depictions of her in literature, film and art. Some artists depict her as a casualty of a political conflict and a sexual scandal, while others depict her as more self-contained and empowered. A modern illustration depicts her as a heartbroken woman whose child is torn away from her. There is, however, a flattering statue of her with her son in the city of Korosten. She does not look like a frail slave girl but as a proud Slavic goddess. Indeed, she is a runt who gave birth to a prince.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Queen of the Darkest Hour" - another Carolingian gem by Kim Rendfeld

Francia, 783: As wars loom, Queen Fastrada faces a peril within the castle walls: King Charles’s eldest son, Pepin. Blaming his father for the curse that twisted his spine, Pepin rejects a prize archbishopric and plots to seize the throne. Can Fastrada stop the conspiracy before it destroys the realm?

Based on historic events during Charlemagne’s reign, "Queen of the Darkest Hour" is a story of family strife endangering an entire country—and the price to save it.

My thoughts:
Queen of the Darkest Hour is the third much anticipated (at least by me) novel in the Charlemagne era trilogy. It is in the same vein as The Cross and the Dragon and Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. The three novels stand on their own, and the first two reference Charlemagne and his family to some extent, but this one delves deeply into his domestic life, namely his third marriage to Fastrada. The style of the narrative is consistent with the author’s prior works. You can expect the same great attention to historical detail, meticulous descriptions of clothing, rituals, dishes. The author is a self-identified feminist, so it’s not surprising that her focus is on the female figures of Carolingian history. I am grateful that Fastrada, Charlemagne’s third wife, is not “feisty”. She doesn’t fit any of the anachronistic clichés plaguing so many historical novel heroines. She doesn’t complain about feeling “stifled” by her station in life, nor does she strive to improve the lot of the underprivileged. What you have is a very balanced, pragmatic, conventional young woman of 16 who was groomed for a very specific role – to be Charles’ consort, stepmother to his brood from prior marriages and hopefully produce a few heirs of her own. She keeps her own emotions in check and puts her duty first. She has no illusions about Charles fully belonging to her. He is a mature, powerful man with "baggage". She manages to establish rapport with Charles’ existing children, including his hunchback son Pepin, who is only 2 years her junior and whose feelings are a mixture of resentment and lust. Pepin is probably the most psychologically complex and interesting character in the novel. I want to personally thank the author for not putting him on a pedestal, as many authors are tempted to do when they deal with a character suffering from some sort of deformity. In terms of plot development, if you know Carolingian history, there will be very few surprises. If you are not familiar with the story of Fastrada, do not rush off to google her. Enjoy the suspense.  

Friday, January 25, 2019

Hello commies!
If you love WWII history and vampires, but are tired of teen drama and lip gloss, here is a treat for you. Two in one. Occupation by Jeff Dawson is a disturbing, borderline irreverent tale set in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. 

Are you ready for vampires to regain their standing in the genre? Are you ready for them to stop "sparkling" and take on a worthy opponent? Then wait no longer. This book will satisfy even the most "blood thirsty" appetites with an added twist; one of the clans is able to release a very nasty bacteria into their respective hosts which after ninety days or so unleashes a very ghoulish end to the recipients.

The Third Reich has occupied Poland! 

The plan of "relocating" the population is well underway with one problem the Germans could never have imagined. Unknowingly, they are removing the food supply of the Romanov and Boirarsky vampire clans. Needless to say, they do not care for each other at all. Too much bad blood has been spilled over the past centuries. Will they be able to unite and take on the true enemy—the Third Reich, or will they perish as the food supply begins to diminish?

Get a copy today and find out if the clans succeed in uniting and dealing the Third Reich their first defeat..

My thoughts:
I was introduced to Jeff Dawson's work through a historical novel group. Being of German, Jewish, Polish and Russian extraction, I view WWII and the invasion of Poland through a unique lens. This topic is of great interest to me. I have to give Dawson kudos for exercising his very peculiar sense of humor. "Occupation" is a very dangerous mix of sacred and profane. I am surprised that this novel didn't ruffle more feathers among WWII purists. I can see someone saying that topics like the Holocaust or the occupation of Poland are off limits when it comes to creating alternative history / speculative fiction. You just don't take something as campy as vampires and inject them into a real human tragedy. And I think it is was a very gutsy move on Dawson's behalf, because he exposed himself to some pretty violent criticism. What is it called in politically correct circles? "Trivialization of human suffering." Dawson alternates very realistic, graphic scenes of nonchalant violence with scenes that border on campy. His choice of names for the vampire characters is peculiar. They are neither Russian nor Polish. He creates pseudo-Slavic, quasi-Central European sounding names. The end result is potent, multilayered kitsch.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Viking: Russian history for mainstream global audiences

Hello, commies and Russian history buffs!

With a budget of almost 21 million, Viking was the third most expensive Russian film. What exactly can you expect for that kind of money? More of the same old, pretty much. It better be the proverbial 100 dollar bill to be "liked by everyone".

My feelings prior to watching “Viking” were mixed to say the least. Cautiously optimistic but mostly skeptical. A part of me rejoiced at the prospect of seeing Russian history marketed to a global audience. At the same time, I knew not to expect anything too authentic, too meaty, too technical or scholarly that would alienate average viewers. Of course, the script and the execution had to be stripped of everything too ethnic, too Slavic, to make it more palatable for those who know very little or nothing about Russia’s conversion to Christianity in the 10th century and the complex man behind it. For one, the title is misleading. It prepares you for a Nordic saga. And it is a Nordic saga to an extent, as it features certain Nordic warriors on the Russian territory. The title is slapped on to attract those viewers who normally would not give a Russian historical a chance. I am not going to judge the marketing team too harshly. My biggest complaint is that there is nothing imaginative or innovative about the cinematography. Maybe I am jaded from seeing too many CGI effects. “Viking” combines the same proven tricks that you expect in a superhero movie. The same washed out color scheme with occasional splashes of blood. The hunt sequence in slow motion in the opening scene. Female characters played by actresses with highlights and spray tan. Contrived sex scenes showcasing girl power to placate the feminist viewers. If you are not preoccupied with historical accuracy, if you gulp those Xerox epics on HBO, “Viking” is another predictable, forgettable, generic Hershey kiss to shove into your mouth.