Sunday, December 2, 2018

Paper Tigers - sex, politics and journalism

Hello, commies!
It's tempting to think that opposites attract. There are many classic love stories involving partners from the opposite sides of the barricades. Lou Aguilar's Paper Tigers is not your typical Pride & Prejudice tale. Set in post 2016 election DC, it is a story of two ambitious journalism interns trying to reconcile their libidos with their ideological differences.

Two ambitious new interns at the Washington Post—a cowboy conservative and a patrician feminist beauty—match wits and sparks while vying for a reporter slot. But can chemistry trump ideology in the mad age of Donald Trump?

They came to the Washington Post from opposite sides—Nick Jarrett, the conservative son of a Wyoming rancher, and Laura London, an Ivy League feminist firebrand. They are young, bright, and attractive. Sure, they’re just copy aides, glorified gophers, relegated to delivering parcels and answering phones on different news desks. But someday, they'll be Post reporters who will save America—either from the Left or the Right…if only they can solve their "silly" romantic issues first. Chief among them are their radically opposed politics —sexual or otherwise.

My thoughts:
What does it take to make a career in journalism nowadays? The media is saturated with stories of dubious credibility, and the readership is jaded, overstimulated and polarized. There is very little place for idealism and personal expression. The young copy aides at Washington Post are up for the challenge. The author introduces us to an ensemble cast of twenty-somethings. The focus is on Nick, whose conservative views make him a bit of an oddity in the oasis of liberalism, and his colleague/love interest Laura, an entitled feminist. Laura thinks of herself as a free-thinker, but in reality all her "strong opinions" are just canned slogans. She comes with the whole bouquet of liberal beliefs: vehemently pro-abortion and self-proclaimed atheist (though on one occasion she calls herself an agnostic). We are talking about someone who champions other women's uteri and nipples yet tolerates abuse from her own boyfriend Phil, justifying his behavior. She praises the New Man archetype (metrosexual, submissive beta-male), yet she is drawn to Nick's cowboy demeanor. For a liberated woman, who is free to pick her own sexual partners, she puts too much stock into other women's approval of her relationships. Like most "empowered women", Laura is deeply insecure and conflicted underneath that veneer of girl power. The proverbial shoemaker without shoes. Personally, I found it a bit surprising that Nick, so blunt and genuine, would take serious romantic interest in Laura. Even though the author suggests otherwise, I personally see Nick's pursuit of Laura as a social experiment. He wants to see if flexing his Prince Charming muscle will break Laura's defenses. When the push comes to shove, he puts his journalism career first and makes rather bold moves to make a headline splash, knowing that it will not score him any points with Laura. It's pretty obvious that their relationship is doomed, despite the physical attraction. Opposites may attract short-term, but they don't form lifelong matches. "Paper Tigers" is an enjoyable read regardless of your own political beliefs. You will catch yourself nodding and smiling, whether you watch Fox News or CNN.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Underdog Manifesto - a downward Odyssey through South Boston

Cheers, commies!
Release day! My latest literary monstrosity is here, Underdog Manifesto, via Crossroad Press. I am going to burn in hell for this one, as it contains trigger upon trigger for everyone, regardless on what side of the political barricades you're on. I thought it would be appropriate to have this novel released right before Thanksgiving. Be thankful you are not Sean McLaine. Special thanks for the talented and handsome cover model Christopher Bopp who depicted the downtrodden Boston Irish protagonist. 

After serving time for nearly killing his student—a crime he maintains he didn't commit—Sean McLaine, a puny drama teacher finds himself broke and friendless on the streets of South Boston at the peak of the Great Recession. His joints have been destroyed by compulsive weightlifting and his mind poisoned by the subtly sadistic prison psychologist.

Salvation comes in the form of an Irish mobster who welcomes Sean into his clan and offers him a chance at a new life. A few plastic surgeries, fake documents, and a sham marriage help the underdog reinvent himself as a philanthropist. His radiant face now fronts one of the largest organ trade enterprises.

To add a finishing touch to his saintly image, he adopts a mentally ill orphan named Casey. Diagnosed with juvenile schizophrenia and believed to be a menace to society, the girl spends most of her days in isolation with no access to electronics. When the flimsy child morphs into a moderately attractive teenager and catches the eye of a film student, Sean's lukewarm paternal affection takes a sinister turn. His inner demons that had been dormant for years become more active, and the weight of his secrets becomes a bit too heavy for his shoulders.

Amidst the political upheavals and school violence of post-election America, the battle for Sean's soul begins. Very soon he discovers that hell has no bottom—you can always sink lower.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Brian Trent's "Ten Thousand Thunders" - a sci-fi take on resurrection and transfiguration

Hello, commies!
Today's gem is Brian Trent's latest sci-fi novel Ten Thousand Thunders, recently released via a new publisher Flame Tree Press. If you appreciate literary sci-fi with references to theology and mythology, this novel is for you!

Having just been killed in a mysterious shuttle explosion, Gethin Bryce is back to uncover what happened. An unusually gifted investigator with the InterPlanetary Council, Gethin is tasked with seeking out the truth behind unexplained anomalies that lie outside IPC control.

His investigation takes him from the luxurious enclaves of Earth’s elite, to the battered Wastelands beyond civilization’s protective thrall. Linking up with an inquiry team from a planet-spanning corporate powerhouse, he also befriends a grim and reluctant outlander who has an important piece of the puzzle—evidence of a sadistic entity which threatens not just civilization, but all life…

My thoughts
Ten Thousand Thunders is a long-awaited novel by Brian Trent, who has already created a solid following of discerning sci-fi fans. His short speculative fiction has been published in some very elite venues. I happen to know (from reading interviews with the author) that he identifies himself as a skeptic and an agnostic. It's somewhat ironic that he incorporates so much Biblical as well as pagan mythological imagery into his writing. The theme of resurrection and transfiguration permeates this fiction. The author also has very high expectations of his readers. He does not dumb down or sugar coat. He expects his readers to have a solid foundation in mythology and classic sci-fi. I saw some reviewers imply that his writing is too dense, complex and a challenge to their attention span. I am not going to argue with that assessment. This particular novel is not a "page turner" in the sense that you skip through the pages between daily tasks. You have to savor his writing in small amounts as if you would sip good red wine. Sometimes you have to pause, go back and reread certain passages. It's not a light read, but it trains and disciplines your brain to appreciate and enjoy this kind of intricate writing. The investment is well worth it. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Daniel, My Son - a father's nightmare

Happy Halloween, Commies!

What would Hallow's Eve be without a chilling read? Not everyone has time for one of Stephen King's 1200 page titans. John B. Rosenman's speculative short stories are literary, thought-provoking and satisfying. This Halloween consider his psychological horror story Daniel, My Son

Suppose you went out trick-or-treating with your seven-year-old son on Halloween and something terrible happened? He ran up a walk to a house and just disappeared, and you could never find him. Suppose a year later on Halloween your grief-stricken wife demands that you take the plastic, candy-filled pumpkin container which is all you could find of your only child and retrace the route you went with Danny? She tells you that unless you find him and bring him back to her, you should never return.

What would you do?

And what—if anything—will you find when you go out into the night on this mad, hopeless quest and visit the same sympathetic neighbors as the year before?

My thoughts
Daniel, My Son is an exploitation piece in some way. It exploits a very common parental fear, that of losing your child under mysterious circumstances. It is horrifying enough to lose your child to an illness or an accident, but when your child goes missing, there is no body, no autopsy report, no closure. In John B. Rosenman's story, a bereaved father delves into grief and self-loathing after his only son Daniel goes missing on Halloween. Is there any way for this family to be reunited? What deal must the father make with the dark forces to bring back his son? This is a potent story to be enjoyed on Halloween - or any other day. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

For Want of a Penny - a YA survival tale set in Victorian England

For Want of a Penny is the first part of a two book Victorian saga –The Nightingale Chronicles is set in 1840s Colchester and the east end of London. A family tragedy means Sarah is forced to go into service at Grey Friars House as an under nursery-maid. Meanwhile her younger brother Alfie, to avoid being taken into the workhouse, runs away to London to seek his fortune. 
Although the situation wasn’t of her making Sarah thrives, but just as she is becoming established in the household her past returns to shatter her happy life and she is dismissed without references. 
Alfie arrives in London but is tricked and sold to work as a slave on a coal barge. However, eventually he prospers and begins to make himself a better life.

My thoughts:

I didn’t realize that Fenella Miller had so many mainstream romance novels. The first book of hers that ended up in my hands “For Want of a Penny”, an early Victorian, working class coming of age story. Personally, I enjoy reading about the Oliver Twist crowd. Following a freak accident that claims the life of their younger half-brother – and incurs the wrath of their aloof stepfather – Sarah and Alfie, two working class teenagers, are left to fend for themselves. Their sickly mother is in no position to defend them as she embraces what psychologists call “learned helplessness” and chooses the path of least resistance – in her case, following her alcoholic husband to another city to “start a new life”. With help from a local minister, Sarah is able to secure a sought after position as a nursemaid in a wealthy household. It takes her a while to establish herself in a predominantly female team, where an ally can turn into a rival. Alfie discovers that his street smarts are not sufficient. After being tricked into slavery and spending several months in horrible conditions, he breaks free and finds himself on the streets. His freedom is short-lived. Almost immediately, he finds himself a member of a boy gang, where his literacy gives him special status. Remember, this was a time before social media. People grieved and lamented in private. They did not air their sorrow to the world. The characters process their emotional suffering in silence, sustained by their will to survive. Despite all the disturbing social issues addressed in the novel, “For Want of a Penny” does not have a dark and heavy vibe. I’d recommend it for young adults interested in learning more about how their peers lived 170 years ago.

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Date for Hannah - a coy stab at body positivity

Hello commies and YA junkies!

Today's honorable defendant is Callie Henry (aka Kate Regnery), a prolific bestselling author of romance. I do not normally read any kind of romance, sweet or spicy, but on occasion it's helpful to pick up something outside of your comfort zone. It's one of those "know thy enemy" things. I have very mixed feelings about the whole body positive movement, so A Date for Hannah caught my eye. As someone who has struggled with body image and body dysmorphic disorder, I must say that the title character is a little too coy and sweet. She's one giant vanilla marshmallow. Not enough pepper. 

High-schooler, Hannah, has always been self-conscious about her weight, so when hottie swimmer, Liam, pays her extra attention at her sister's wedding, she has a hard time trusting his interest. Throughout the evening, Liam's charm wins her over, until they're falling hard for each other. But the next day, Hannah learns something that may ruin it all.

My thoughts
It is what it is. An unrealistic sugar-vanilla heart-warmer. I realize this author is trying to churn out a book a week and has to resort to assembling stock expressions without getting into psychological nuances. It is not meant to be stimulating or mind-opening. It's supposed to give every chubby girl (as long as she has a cute face and a docile personality) hope that a hot guy will fall for "what is on the inside". I do not know how much time the author spent conversing with overweight women struggling with body image and sexual confidence, but I recommend that a little educational expedition to make her writing more raw and realistic - if that is indeed her goal. Maybe I shouldn't assume that she wants to present a realistic picture of a larger woman's sexuality. She is in the business of producing feel-good non-offensive fiction for teens that will not ruffle any feathers or raise too many questions. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

"Childhood's Day" by John Rosenman - resurrecting your younger self

Hello commies and sci-fi lovers!

I have read and reviewed several short sci-fi reads by John B. Rosenman. I find his short stories thought-provoking and satisfying, like Twilight Zone episodes. I'd like to share with you Childhood's Day, one of Rosenman's most disturbing and stimulating stories. He takes the popular topic of human cloning and presents it with an original twist. 

Suppose you could have yourself reborn at the age of seven so your younger replica could you help you cope with crippling guilt for the death of your father -- would you do it? And would it be fair to the boy you once were, especially since he will live only one day?

My thoughts:
"Childhood's Day" left me craving more. I am not saying that this piece is incomplete as it is. But I would love to see it developed into a full length novel. There are so many "teasers" and "what ifs" built into this sci-fi piece. It raises so many philosophical, psychological and bio-ethical questions, that the author could easily grow them into a 60-90K manuscript. The issue of human cloning has been a classic staple in the genre of science fiction. In Rosenman's short story "Childhood's Day" it is used as a therapy tool. Imagine resurrecting your younger self for a day to help you deal with repressed trauma. It is a popular question: "What would you tell your younger self?" But what would your younger self tell you? More importantly, would you be ready to hear the truth? Would it help you heal your wounds or open new ones? 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

When I'm With You - insecure overweight artists and gay best friends

Hello, commies!
If you are into indie flicks focusing on social justice and self pity, check out When I'm With You. I have very mixed feelings about this movie. I cannot dismiss it completely as a leftist pity party, but there's plenty of liberal propaganda in it too. Check it out. It's on Amazon prime. 

As she struggles to connect with her estranged homophobic brother and admit her true feelings for her gay best friend, artist Lea Costa sets out to unite them all as the family she never had.

My thoughts:
For an indie, this flick is not bad. I could not figure out if it was supposed to be all shaky-cam blurry. There are way too many out of focus shots. I'm not sure if all of them were done that way on purpose. Or was it because the DP could not figure out the settings on the camera? Overall decent natural acting interrupted by the pulsating in and out of focus picture. In terms of the actual plot development and themes, there is not much subtlety. An overweight, self-conscious artist in love with her gay best friend. Very clear-cut ultra left propaganda. Skinny heterosexual men are portrayed as homophobic savages. What else is new? If you can turn off the inner Republican and just watch, there are a few things about this movie you can enjoy - if you can get past the shaky cam.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Bagonoun's Wonderful Songbird - a Beauty & the Beast tale in South Pacific

Greetings, commies!
I've been on my Beauty & the Beast binge. Except, sometimes I like to see the roles reversed. What if the female protagonist was ugly? John Rosenman's Bagonoun's Wonderful Songbird came in as a perfect treat.

An old man and a young girl are unlikely lovers, but what happens when a magical bird starts to sing? Bagonoun's Wonderful Songbird is an improbable love story that takes place on the island Nauru in the South Pacific. Sometimes miracles come true.

My thoughts:
I enjoy Rosenman's novellas and short stories because they read like Twilight Zone episodes. You get philosophy and ethics infused into each piece. Most of Rosenman's works take place in space or on another planet. "Bagonoun's Wonderful Songbird" takes place on an island in South Pacific in some ambiguous past. The idea of a much older man and a younger woman has been explored in his previous work "More Stately Mansions". The twist here is that the girl is deemed ugly by the villagers, too ugly to marry. I know it is very posh now to bash "Western beauty standards". Guess what? Non-Western cultures can be even more brutal when it comes to beauty standards. At least in modern America or Europe you cannot be denied employment or medical care if you do not adhere to the beauty standards. What plays in the girl's favor is that Bagonoun, pushing seventy, is past the point of evaluating women based on their looks. He has a "been there, done it" attitude. In his youth he was married to a beautiful girl and fathered six children with her. Now, in the twilight of his life, he starts looking beyond outward beauty. He is one of the few villagers who bother to get to know Emet, the unmarriageable outcast. However, Bagonoun still has not lost his competitive streak. He  still enters his songbird into competitions. He has not denounced all worldly vanities. He still craves recognition. As he spends time with Emet, telling her myths from the island, their friendship morphs into love - the kind that transcends appearances and transform their very bodies. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Status Rises - a sequel to Vincent Robert Annunziato's cyber thriller

Commies and game addicts!

Last year I reviewed a marvelous YA cyber thriller by Vincent Robert Annunziato Status, a novel of an addictive game fueled by social egos. Today I am posting a review for Status Rises, a sinister sequel. 

The game too dangerous to stop playing returns in this intense sequel to the original "Status The Game." 

Since Status shut down last year, life has just about returned to normal for the town of Madison. Bob Brookes and his former students have struggled to move on, but Status has other ideas. Odd things pop up around town. Old symbols, people who look out of place and a new version of the game threaten the fragile peace of Madison. Amongst it all somewhere, somehow, someone has gone to great lengths to draw Bob and his alliance back into the game. 

Rumors surface about Timmy, the high schooler who took his life at the end of last year’s finale. Some say he is still alive and he concocted an elaborate hoax to fool everyone about his death. Others say there are prophecies that once fulfilled will allow him to rise from the dead and enact his revenge on those that defeated him. Either way Bob and his crew have to be wary. 

Will the team reunite and take on this new menace? Or will they ignore it all in hopes it will go away? Of course, there's only one way to find out.

Stay Strong! Stay Loyal!

Click now and get in the game!

My thoughts
Like cancer, it returns. The addictive game that had ravaged the town of Madison the year before, having turned students and faculty into zombies. It seems that with the main perpetrators either dead or institutionalized, things should be returning to normal? Not so fast. Too early to let the guard down. You can shut down the game, but you cannot shut down the human weaknesses and vices that fuel the game - insecurity, vanity, hunger for power and revenge. Timmy's bereaved mother reinvents herself as an avenger, determined to make the survivors of Status pay for her son's death. Once again the line between human beings and their embellished virtual analogs blurs. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Gaspar Noe's "Love" - a compilation of sexual cliches

I could not resist reviewing this cinematic abortion that I stumbled across. Gaspar Noe's Love is an example of sloppy, lazy, unimaginative writing and cinematography. The cover image of three tongues connected by strings of saliva pretty much sets the mood and the viewers' expectations.

My thoughts
Drugs, repetitive sex, threesomes, suicidal tendencies, older married boyfriends, broken condoms. All been done. The director must be really naive to think that viewers are shocked by full frontal shots. Sorry to break it to him, but most of us know what various body parts look like. The sex scenes are not sexy - they are silly. There is very little left to the imagination. The writing is equally unimaginative. Declarations of love mixed with threats and profanities. The character development is below minimal. The movie is supposed to be set in Paris, yet you wouldn't know if you weren't told. The most unrealistic part was the size Murphy's apartment. Does the director know how much Parisian flats cost and how much an American film student can afford? We are told that Murphy is a film student, yet he looks and acts like a club bouncer. Gotta love that wife-beater he wears for half of the movie. So you basically take a guy who looks like he belongs on the streets of the Bronx, call him a "film maker" and stick him in Paris. And that suddenly makes the whole flick more sophisticated? If you are intrigued by a pathetic attempt to make an "edgy" movie, and if you have 2+ hours of your time to waste, by all means, give "Love" a try.

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. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Help young journalist fight cancer


This is the first time I post about helping a fellow Commie, a young journalist. Christina is a beautiful and talented woman who is battling stage 3 sarcoma. She is undergoing treatment in Moscow. If you are so inclined, please share this post and/or support her treatment.

This is her story:

Christina is a vibrant young girl, she is a journalist for a popular youth magazine in Central Asia ( Kyrgyzstan)
Her passion is ballroom dancing and she has won numerous awards and competitions.

Christina is a smart, positive young lady that has been recently diagnosed with stage 3 cancer.

Unfortunately, Christina lost her mother when she was just 17 and the only family she has is her stepfather that has left his job in Israel and rushed to be by her side. The doctors are optimistic and currently put her chances of survival at 80%. However, after the first set of chemotherapy she is very weak and is currently in intensive care.
The treatment is very expensive and has cost the family £20,000 so far.
Her stepfather has used up his savings and we are relying on support to get her the treatment she so desperately needs.
Please find it in your heart to help this young beautiful lady survive and live a full life that she deserves.
She is currently being treated in Yusupov Hospital in Moscow.
The money is needed for a second set of chemotherapy followed by an operation to remove the tumour.
Without your help she will not be operated on.
Thank you for your kindness.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Popular Stud Syndrome - why it is a systemic problem

Greetings, commies!

Today's rant topic is the infamous Popular Stud Syndrome. Did I get your attention? This term is NOT from a teen sex comedy or the National Lampoon. It was NOT coined by a 20-something gender-fluid Huffington Post freelance contributor fighting the "rape culture". Though it sounds patriarchal and vaguely pornographic, the Popular Stud Syndrome refers to a phenomenon in the world of breeders when an animal with desirable attributes is bred repeatedly. As a Siberian cat breeder with several years of experience under my belt, I have encountered several sought after studs, winners of respected competitions, who juggled the limelight of the show hall with the seductive twilight of the conjugal area. Some particularly desirable studs are bred extensively to many females, creating a large population of half-siblings, thus reducing the genetic diversity of the breed. Also, some undesirable genetic traits in the stud can spread rapidly. If unchecked, certain health conditions such as heart defects or propensity for cancer can be passed along. Sometimes, by the time you discover a genetic defect in a sought after stud, it's too late. Too many babies have been fathered.

With my Long Island market dwindling due to my partner's recent decision to move to Switzerland for work, I am toiling aggressively to build my network in New England. It is March, and my little stud Rory, a ginger Donald Trump look alike who has fathered to date forty-five kittens to to six different females, is feeling the sting of sexual frustration. Major, major pussy withdrawal. So you can imagine how excited I was to get in touch with a breeder in Boston. To our mutual dismay, it was discovered that most of her breeding females were related to Rory through a grandfather. While breeding with first and second cousins is acceptable, it is not desirable. It is a real problem in New England to find Siberians who are not closely to each other, whose inbreeding percentage is under 10%. More and more breeders import studs and dames from Europe to ensure a more diverse gene pool.
Overbreeding of select males nurtures elitism and exploitation. Every day gorgeous male animals are being objectified for their looks and exploited for their genetic traits.Too many back to back conjugal visits exhaust a male, leading to sexual burnout, anemia, hair loss, urinary tract infections, groin injuries and testosterone poisoning. These magnificent creatures who talk to St. Francis are reduced to carnal sex machines.

I know how tempting it is to be able to say: "My kittens were fathered by a world champion so-and-so (fill in the blank." But there is a dark side to prestige. As much as you want to stick to the proven classics, diversity is a beautiful thing! I encourage my breeder friends to go to shows, build new relationships and discover new emerging lines for their breeding programs.

Conservatively yours,
Connecticut Commie

Thursday, March 8, 2018

An average cat can be a tiger mom

Hello, commies and cat lovers!
Today is March 8th, the international women's solidarity day, and I would like to take this opportunity to write a little ode to the cat woman who raised me, whose claws molded me into the creature I am today. Everyone is familiar with the term Tiger Mom. Most of them are of Asian descent. But there is another breed of tiger mom, more subtle but no less deadly: the Russian-Jewish Tiger Mom. I was honored and blessed to be raised by one of those. My mother is just an average size cat with a nuclear purrrsonality. This is NOT going to be a mushy post about "unconditional love" and "forgiveness". Screw that. This is what my Mommy taught.

She taught me to play with my food before ripping its head off
She taught me to fight with my fangs and claws out
She taught me to climb high altitudes without looking down
She taught me to mark my territory with my scent
She taught me to hiss and growl all over the neighborhood
She taught me to attack other females twice my size
She taught me to hide my injuries from my enemies
She taught me to lick my wounds in private
She taught me to pursue the high-ranking tomcat of my dreams
She taught me to bury the remnants of my enemies in the sandbox

Because of her, the word "sacrifice" is not in my vocabulary. Because of her, I put ideas and projects above meaningless relationships. Because of her I never walk away from a fight. Happy March 8th, Mama Cat!

Sincerely yours,
Connecticut Commie

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Cuckoo - a sex comedy set during WWII

Greetings, commies and WWII buffs!

When you think of a bawdy sex comedy, you don't immediately think of WWII as the setting, but that is exactly what "The Cuckoo" is. The action unfolds in September of 1994, shortly before Finland pulls out of the Continuation War against the Soviet Union. A solitary Sami woman, well adjusted to her surrounding and thriving in rather harsh conditions, running a reindeer farm that becomes a refuge for a Finnish sniper and a Red Army captain following a bombing raid. Three people, all speaking different languages, form a peculiar love triangle that eventually turns into a menage a trois.

The doom-and-gloom backdrop becomes a canvas for a hysterical, raunchy, irreverent sex comedy with a heart. Those of you who love "strong, independent, empowered female characters", will drool over the polyamorous Sami girl who brews herbs, talks to spirits and uses several men to satisfy her carnal desires. The two soldiers temporarily forget the fact that they are enemies and become rivals for the privilege to roll with her on deer skin. Here is the bummer. This film is really hard to find.  Neither Netflix nor Amazon have it. I found it on a Russian site without subtitles. I hope this gem becomes available to English speaking audiences.