Sunday, December 1, 2019

"Shockwaves" by Thomas Tessier - a revival of a meaty 1970s slasher

Greetings, commies!
While the memories of turkey carving are still fresh in your heads, I wanted to recommend a meaty, hearty horror thriller by Thomas Tessier Shockwaves. It features a serial killer called the Blade who decapitates young women. If you want an an antidote to all this holiday cheer, consider this gem.

Important: this is a reprint of a novel written in the late 1970, so the style reflects the tastes, views and sensibilities of the time. That being said, "Shockwaves" can be extremely stimulating and eye-opening for many modern readers. 

There is something to be said for a horror/thriller novel set before the internet or even consumer video recording devices. It closes certain doors and opens others. Imagine a serial killer on the loose in a time before cell phones, security cameras or alarm systems. It would take a different forensic process to apprehend and convict the killer. Thomas Tessier's novel "Shockwaves" is set in the 1970s, when the novel was originally written. That would make some of the main character's decisions a little less shocking. Most modern young women would not drop out of college to marry a much older man and settle into what looks to be conventional domesticity. In a girl nowadays dropped a bomb like that, she would encounter some resistance from her friends and family. Also, modern politicians do not consider it beneficial to their image to marry 20-year olds with unfinished degrees. It's not good for their image. However, 40+ years ago such a match was not considered terribly gauche. Jackie, the main female character (I hesitate to call her protagonist, as disillusionment does not constitute "character arc" in my book) truly believes that she lucked out when Brooks Matthews, a seasoned lawyer who's been around the block, proposes marriage. Without much agonizing, she decides to leave her familiar world of studies and peers for a very different world of her husband's predatory colleagues and their stiff image-conscious wives. What can possibly go wrong, right? 

If you are an English or creative writing major, you will have to tune out your instructor chiding you for "head-hopping" or liberal usage of the third person omniscient. Thomas Tessier does quite a bit of that, and I'm actually grateful for it. His narrative is split in a way that sometimes you feel like you are reading two separate parallel novels. The sequences depicting Jackie's dysfunctional marriage alternate with the sequences of the gruesome murders committed by the Blade. The author gives a human face to each victim, creating miniature universes within the larger universe of the plot. Personally, I like that approach. At the same time, I can see some English majors going over certain passages with the proverbial red pen. I can see some critics saying that the author gives too much attention to people who are going to get killed and not mentioned again, developing their back stories too much. It can be distracting and misleading for some. Again, I don't mind feeling distracted. The author plays with my concentration, with my attention span, throws a few red herrings, thus engaging me even deeper. The author doesn't walk on eggshells for fear of confusing the reader. He also pulls no punches and doesn't soften any blows. He actually goes through with your deepest, darkest fears. 

A warning to those who are seeking an empowered, purposeful female protagonist on a mission to change the world.  I am not going to say the generic "this novel is not for you". You should still give it a chance, even though you may not get all the elements that you find satisfying. This is not an inspiration or social justice piece. It's not supposed to make you feel good. It's a horror novel about a serial killer targeting young female victims. We're talking naive teenage girls getting butchered. If you can stomach that and suspend your personal need for justice, this novel is an absolute page-turner.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Blind Trust - a short tour de force with counter-intuitive casting

Greetings, commies!
If you want to take a break from the impeachment circus, consider spending 20 minutes of your life on a short film Blind Trust. The world cannot have enough of sex and money scandals. 

The nominee for the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury gets caught in a public controversy around his family's hedge fund trusts.

My thoughts:
It definitely helps to understand finance and some of the jargon to appreciate this short film on a different level. "Blind Trust" is a play on words, referring to unconditional confidence in another person's loyalty as well as a particular financial model. The choice of actors for the roles is unconventional and all the more potent. The executive assistance having affair with the boss' husband is not some sexy bomb shell but a middle-aged, woman with rough features and a mannish haircut. I guess the director wanted to show that at that level of affluence and influence, looks don't matter anymore. Neither one of the female characters is traditionally glamorous. The only character who makes an effort to engage her feminine charm is the sneaky reporter, played by Annette Guarrasi. I also found it odd that the age difference between the executive mother and her daughter seems negligible. The daughter looks surprisingly weary for 28. Certainly doesn't look like your typical "golden child". In the end, those counter-intuitive casting choices made the film all the more poignant and eye-opening. The cynical and heartbreaking finale makes this film a true tour de force.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Lazarus Trick: a study of loneliness and mortality

Greetings, commies!
Halloween is over, but we have a long winter ahead of us. Here is a suggested piece of short fiction for your teens and preteens, The Lazarus Trick from John B. Rosenman. 

Growing up can be hard, especially when you have mixed feelings about a fellow sixth grader. Tommy Starr is drawn to Mark Harmon, but despite Mark's magnetic personality, he has a dark side as well. On Halloween, Mark displays terrifying telekinetic and other abilities that frighten Tommy and make him decide never to see Mark again.

His father also doesn't want Tommy to see Mark. Still, Tommy disobeys him, choosing to remain Mark's friend. Soon, government agents discover where Mark and his own father have been hiding. They pursue Mark, determined to harness his powers for the military. As the two boys run, they grow ever closer until a climactic event changes Tommy forever.

My thoughts:
"The Lazarus Trick" made me think of a 1970s psychological horror film "Phantasm", as they both depict an adolescent mind trying to process the concept of mortality. You can read this novella as a straight up sci-fi piece that takes place in its own universe, or you can take it as a fantasy concocted by a child trying to come to terms with such daunting subjects as loneliness and death. A seemingly ordinary 11-year old Tommy puts himself at risk socially and physically when he befriends Mark, an outsider with supernatural talents. The novella starts with Mark playing a rather cruel trick on Halloween, much to Tommy's horror. As the plot progresses, we find out that there are unsettling reasons behind Mark's cruelty, secrets tied to the story of his birth. This child is carrying unfathomable burden that makes him and his father outcasts wherever they go. I kept wondering if the whole story is a figment of Tommy's imagination, if Mark was an imaginary friend, an alter ego Tommy wanted to possess. Regardless of how you interpret this story, your middle schoolers will find it enjoyable, thought-provoking and relatable. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Laura Marshall's thriller "Friend Request": on the dangers of "beta" status

Greetings, commies!
Somehow I missed the suicide prevention month, but it's never too late to write a post that touches upon mental health, peer pressure, bullying, social media, and how all those components can create a perfect disaster on all fronts. Hey, maybe some of you have school age kids. Maybe you are still reeling from the trauma of bullying. Consider reading Laura Marshall's thriller Friend Request

1989. When Louise first notices the new girl who has mysteriously transferred late into their senior year, Maria seems to be everything the girls Louise hangs out with aren't. Authentic. Funny. Brash. Within just a few days, Maria and Louise are on their way to becoming fast friends.

. Louise receives a heart-stopping email: Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook. Long-buried memories quickly rise to the surface: those first days of their budding friendship; cruel decisions made and dark secrets kept; the night that would change all their lives forever.

Louise has always known that if the truth ever came out, she could stand to lose everything. Her job. Her son. Her freedom. Maria's sudden reappearance threatens it all, and forces Louise to reconnect with everyone she'd severed ties with to escape the past. But as she tries to piece together exactly what happened that night, Louise discovers there's more to the story than she ever knew. To keep her secret, Louise must first uncover the whole truth, before what's known to Maria--or whoever's pretending to be her--is known to all.

My thoughts:
I feel grateful for this novel and strangely validated by it. Having endured my share of school bullying, I always resented being told to "grow up, you're not in high school anymore". It's almost like an additional slap, essentially being called a whiny baby. My guess is that those dismissive phrases come from those who never were bullied themselves or maybe even instigated the bullying. Anyone who was on the receiving end of bullying will attest that adolescent trauma can linger. It affects your confidence well into adulthood, no matter how successful you may end up becoming. There is always that insecurity, that sense of unworthiness that makes you work extra hard to earn validation. So I applaud the author for acknowledging that. I also applaud her for creative a complex female protagonist who is not immediately sympathetic. Louise is not someone you immediately warm up to and want to root for, despite all the sob stories that she tells. Louise spends a lot of time bemoaning her plight as a newly divorced mom in her early 40s with minimal dating prospects. It took her many years to conceive her only son, only to have her narcissistic husband Sam dump her for a younger woman. So Louise is still in that neurotic, insecure, school-girl place where she constantly compares herself to other women in her age bracket, reads other people's profiles on Facebook. However, what makes the reader pause before embracing Louise is her dirty high school secret: having given into peer pressure, she had joined a bullying campaign against a classmate named Maria Weston. Louise blames herself for Maria's death on the night of the prom, but her desperate ways of seeking justification for her behavior make her remorse seem insincere. "I know I acted terribly, but ..." She spends a lot of time defending herself, and that makes the reader so hesitant to embrace her. I am not sure if this was the author's intention, but if she did intend to create this kind of ambivalence in the reader, she succeeded admirably. It's true that in bullying there are those who device the cruel master plots and those who carry them out. The queen of the clique devises the scheme and lets her "betas" do the dirty work. Louise ended up in that "beta" role. The whole novel is the story of a "beta" who had to stifle her conscience to gain popularity points. Very, very socially and psychologically authentic. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

"Necessary Sins" a novel by Elizabeth Bell

In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family's secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner's wife.

Joseph Lazare and his two sisters grow up believing their black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother—until the summer they learn she was an African slave. While his sisters make very different choices, Joseph struggles to transcend the flesh by becoming a celibate priest.

Then young Father Joseph meets Tessa Conley, a devout Irish immigrant who shares his passions for music and botany. Joseph must conceal his true feelings as Tessa marries another man—a plantation owner who treats her like property. Acting on their love for each other will ruin Joseph and Tessa in this world and damn them in the next.

My thoughts:
I did not deserve this novel! This gem of historical and psychological authenticity left me speechless and humbled. I started following the author pre-publication posts and had high expectations for this novel, and the final product exceeded my expectations tenfold. It does not have any of those formulaic "crowd pleaser" elements that you find in most novels published by the Big Six. There are more massacre scenes than love scenes. Three worlds, three major geographic locations are involved: the island of Hispanola, Europe and the American south. The main character, Joseph Lazarre, is a cultural and spiritual product of those three locations. Born in Charleston, tracing his roots to the Caribbean, educated in Europe, he is both determined and conflicted. Ironically, it is the secrets surrounding his ancestry that set him on the path of ultimate truth. Sometimes you have to harbor lies to be a truly honest man. Sometimes you have to sin to understand holiness. He must overcome a few prejudices and break a few vows to become a true man of God. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

T-34 - World War II Russian Action Movie

Greetings, commies and WWII enthusiasts!

I got T-34 as a gift for my 17-year old son who is really into military history and military technology. The title of the movie is straightforward and naive - "T-34". It is what it is. The main figure in the movie is a tank. The human characters are two-dimensional pawns. Don't look for psychological complexity. They are superficially sympathetic, the good guys and the bad guys. There is just a hint of moral conflict, not enough to shift the focus away from the tank. I am not sure that all viewers will love the CGI effects, the slow-mo tank battle scenes. Anyway, we made a family movie night out of it. Turned off the lights, cuddled up on the couch with smoked Polish sausages and root beer floats. It's that kind of a movie. My son praised the structural authenticity of the tank, and that means a lot. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Annie on my Mind: an early LGBT novel

Greetings, commies!
Some of you have kids, which means, for some of you it's back to school time! What did YOUR kids read this summer? If they are done with their mandatory reading, it's not too late to squeeze in another YA book. Consider Annie On My Mind, a story of two high school senior girls whose shared interest in art leads to an anticipated romance that threatens to destroy their social and academic lives.  

When Liza Winthrop first lays eyes on Annie Kenyon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she knows there’s something special between them. Soon, their close friendship develops into a deep and intimate romance. Neither imagined that falling in love could be so wonderful, but as Liza and Annie’s newfound sexuality sparks conflict in both their families and at their schools, they discover it will take more than love for their relationship to succeed.
One of the first books to positively portray a lesbian relationship, Annie on My Mind is a groundbreaking classic of the genre. The subject of a First Amendment lawsuit over banned books and one of School Library Journal’s “One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century,” Nancy Garden’s iconic novel is an important story for anyone discovering who they’re meant to be.

My thoughts:

I am not a member of the LGBT community, but this book was on the suggested read list at my old high-school. I like taking chances and reading books outside of my regular "comfort zone" (military and historical fiction). I must say, the literary quality of "Annie on My Mind" is superb. I understand it was written in 1982 and was one of the first books depicting and advocating for a same-sex romance, but it feels like it was written in the 19th century. The language is very elaborate, articulate and exalted. Kids just don't talk like this anymore. It made me pine for the "good old days" when people, regardless of age, actually spoke in complete sentences and maintained eye contact - God forbid. How did we go from such gorgeous prose to one-liner grunts "Like ... you know ... whatever." The two girls in the novel are very intelligent, articulate and creative without coming across as pretentious. I wish more modern teens read this book just to make them realize what they are missing: real language, real conversations, real feelings. 

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.