Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Lost Season of Love and Snow - if you like "synthetic" Russia ...

Greetings, commies and lovers of Russian literature.

I normally review books that I have enjoyed, but sometimes I post a review for a novel that fell short of my expectations, or rather, lived up to my worst fears. The Lost Season of Love and Snow is one of those. They say, don't judge a book by the author's head shot. I tried that. Nope. Jennifer Laam has the appearance of someone who should be writing cook books or light romance novels. I do not advise her biting into Russian history. Of course, it's not my right to tell any author what to write. In her bio she states that she's always had a fascination with Russian culture. And that's just what it is - flighty fascination. Alas, this is the kind of fluff St. Martin has been publishing. 

At the beguiling age of sixteen, Natalya Goncharova is stunningly beautiful and intellectually curious. At her first public ball during the Christmas of 1828, she attracts the romantic attention of Russia’s most lauded rebel poet: Alexander Pushkin. Finding herself deeply attracted to Alexander’s intensity and joie de vivre, Natalya is swept up in a courtship and then a marriage full of passion but also destructive jealousies. When vicious court gossip leads Alexander to defend his honor as well as Natalya’s in a duel, he tragically succumbs to his injuries. Natalya finds herself reviled for her perceived role in his death. In her striking new novel, The Lost Season of Love and Snow, Jennifer Laam helps bring Natalya’s side of the story to life with vivid imagination—the compelling tale of her inner struggle to create a fulfilling life despite the dangerous intrigues of a glamorous imperial Court and that of her greatest love.

My thoughts:
I was determined to be open-minded about this book and give it a chance (which in my case meant pretending that I was Russian and have read Pushkin in the original and several of his biographies). Somehow I knew from the first page that the book was going to make me roll my eyes and cringe more than once. As a reader, you find yourself in a synthetic, cardboard Russia. Of course, if you have no personal connection to that country, you would not know the real thing from a "lab created" knock off. Not that I expected the author to create an authentic ambiance. Let's talk about the heroine, Natalie. For how much she tries to present herself as someone who does not only care about dresses and material comforts, she spends a great deal of time focusing on the cosmetic and decorative details, which only confirms her to be a superficial ditz. Or maybe it's the author's fondness for adjectives. Her diction is very dense, because it's filled to various references to colors, scents, textures. A few times I choked on a sentence. I am not sure if the purpose of this novel was to exonerate Natalie or to vilify her. Laam's heroine comes across as someone who has no sense of humor. You don't get a sense for who she really is a person. In terms of her sexuality, she is a mixture of a giddy fan girl and a spinster. Her timid dabbling in what a Western woman would call feminism and her feeble squeaks "I am not just a pretty face, you know" are just pathetic. Two stars. B- for effort. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Flying Away by Caroline A. Gill - a nightmare inside a girl's head

Greetings, commies and horror lovers!
Today's feature is Flying Away by Caroline A. Gill, the first book in her Flykeeper Chronicles. In most stories flies are depicted as pests, symbols of decay and parasitism, in contrast to the wholesome and hard-working honeybees, but in this particular novel they are depicted as allies.  And I always like when old images are used in new counter-iconic ways.

When Iolani Bearse was five years old, she lost her father to war. When she was nine, her mother died in a freak car accident. When Lani was fourteen, eerie green lights invaded, tearing her from the only home she had left.

Living as a runaway, dragging a horse and her cousin Eleanor across the countryside, Lani must learn to survive. Now Lani is the only person between the horrible, greedy lights and the last bit of family she has left. Her own heart is barely beating, but powerful memories pull her to Malcolm St. John. She fights what she feels, buried deep within her shattered soul.

Malcolm St. John always held his feelings in, especially about Iolani. So when she shows up on his doorstep, desperate and determined, Mal must decide if the wild tales she spins are the fragments of insanity or the last hope for a dying nation. This Lani is different from the child he knew. Something is coming for her, for him, and will not be stopped

If the cousins and Malcolm can’t escape the grasping hunters who hound them, the future of a broken America will be destroyed. Everything Lani has ever loved will burn with them. Somehow, she must find a path through friendship and loyalty to save them all.

My thoughts
I picked up a Kindle of this novel with another cover, more abstract, with green and red dominating the color scheme. I think I liked it better, because it communicated that eerie, mystical, creepy vibe. The new cover looks too superhero/post-apocalyptic. In my opinion, the old cover fit the content and the genre more. Regardless, I enjoyed this novel tremendously. On several occasions you will have to suspend judgment/disbelief. Do not expect the story line and the sequence of events to make sense 100% of the time. Take this novel as one long nightmare, a compilation of phobias inside the head of a teenage girl who is trying to process bereavement. She is looking for supernatural explanations to natural, albeit unfortunate, events that happen in her life. If you remember the movie "Phantasm" from 1979, that is the vibe you get from this book. So much of it is an allegory. At least that's how I took it. 

Thank you, thank you, Author, for creating a unique, articulate heroine, who is courageous and articulate behind her years. I am thankful that you did not try to make her "just an average Jane" next door. And that flies in your novel are portrayed as allies, not pests or symbols of decay.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Titans of the Pacific - a 1930s thriller worthy of a mini-series

Greetings, commies!
First blog post of 2018. If you love military/historical fiction and literary non-fiction, if you love Jeff Shaara's Gettysburg trilogy, The Titans of the Pacific is a must read! I got a free review copy, and I will be ordering the paperback for my boys.

In 1930, the world was hurtling towards one of the most terrifying periods in human history. The Titans of the Pacific tells incredible, but real, historical events. 

John travels to South America as a member of an American economic mission advising the Peruvian government. He finds Peru in chaos, with an authoritarian regime supported by the country’s elite and foreign big business. He is drawn to the mysterious Yolanda and witnesses the start of a civil war and the local impact of the extreme political movements that tore the world apart leading up to World War II. 

When The Washington Post co-opts John as an investigative journalist, he uncovers a sinister plot with worldwide ramifications. He must decide whether to risk his life in Peru struggling to foil the plot, and challenge The Titans of the Pacific – who will do anything to hold on to power – or return to a safer life in the USA. 

My thoughts:
A few decades ago a new popular genre emerged called literary non-fiction. Many popular history authors wrote in that genre, to make history more palatable and engaging to "lay" readers. Robert Gammon's debut novel "The Titans of the Pacific" is something between a work of extremely well researched fiction and literary non-fiction. If you like Jeff Shaara's Gettysburg trilogy, "The Titans" is the novel for you. I consider myself a huge fan of the WWII period, but my focus has been on the Eastern Front (I trace my roots to Eastern Europe). So I jumped at the chance to read a novel set in 1930s in a part of the world that does not get much coverage from historical novelists and film makers. And I certainly hope (a girl can always dream) that "The Titans" gets made into a movie, or better yet, an A&T miniseries. Gammon's keen interest in politics and history is very evident. Yet he does not sacrifice the human component. John, a first-generation American tracing his roots to Ireland, experiences a fairly typical Irish-American childhood with a doting, somewhat overbearing widowed father Desmond. An unexpected stroke-of-luck promotion changes their fate and opens a world of new opportunities - and temptations - for young John. Defying the odds, he enters Harvard - an impressive feat for a first generation American. As things heat up globally in the 1930s, John travels to Peru with a delegation. His connection to South America stems from his father's love of Hispanic literature. Actually, the Irish - Hispanic connection is not that unusual. There is a sense of religious kinship between the two heavily Catholic cultures. However, John experiences a major shock when he travels to Peru. Still young and idealistic, he is horrified by the oligarchy regime. Pondering the challenges faced by Peru, John cannot help but reflect on the economic hardships in the US that resulted from the market crash of 1929. 

The novel is definitely male-dominated, which I don't mind. I like reading testosterone-loaded military history. But for the admirers of strong female characters, there is Yolanda, a brilliant international law student who captivates John on the ship to Peru. She is like a toned-down version of a Bond girl. 

As I mentioned earlier, it's hard to read this novel without envisioning it as a miniseries and mentally auditioning various actors for the roles.