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review 2017-05-16 15:28
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel - Amor Towles

Thank you, Mr. Towles. I adored this book, in no small part because I adore Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the central character from whose point of view the book is told. He is, in the true sense of the word, a gentleman: well educated, well read, well spoken, witty, loyal, and kind, one who rejects ennui as the sign of a lazy mind, who adapts to changing circumstances with flexibility and sees humility as a virtue in no way at odds with dignity. A gentleman never complains. A gentleman understands good manners are intended to be used to put others at ease, never to embarrass.

 

The other important character is the Metropole Hotel of Moscow, where our Count remains under house arrest for decades. It becomes his world, and therefore the world of the reader, a backdrop to the disturbing events of Russia from the 1920s to the 1950s. This is not a dark book, although it is not without pain. No book of Russia could possibly be written without pain -- Russia IS pain, after all. But we are inside the heart and mind of the unflappable, intellectually supple and resilient Count, and therefore we understand we are as safe as the travel-weary traveler sitting down to dinner in the grand restaurant where eventually -- because everyone in the Soviet Union must work, comrade -- Count Rostov becomes head waiter.

 

The writing is luscious. The wit is laugh-out-loud funny, the characters charming and alive, and the ending completely satisfying.

 

My only regret is that the Count is not a real person I can invite to dinner.

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review 2017-03-17 15:09
A magical fairytale with a touch of the classics
The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel - Katherine Arden

Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK/Ebury Publishing for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily choose to review.

I’m a big fan of fairy tales and I’m always happy to discover new tales and stories that fit in that category, or that retell some old classics. And I love the stories based on old folktales that capture the beauty of old language, customs and the historical times and places long gone. The Bear and the Nightingale reminded me how much I like these stories and how the best of them are irresistible, at least for me.

Set in Russia (before it was Russia, as the author explains in her notes), the novel creates a great cast of characters, those “real” (princes and princesses, labourers, farmers, villagers, a landed family with food connections), others with a touch of the paranormal, like the protective spirits (of the house, the door, the stables, the forest, the lakes) that might turn nasty if not fed or treated kindly by human beings, the horrific ones (Death, The Bear, vampires), and animals, like the magical nightingale/horse of the title.

The character at the centre of the story, Vasilisa (Vasya), is the youngest child of her mother, Marina, who wanted to have a girl who would be like her. Marina had the ability to see things others couldn’t (the spirits of the forest, of the house, and she could also talk to animals) and she wants to pass her ability on. She dies when her daughter is born, and young Vasya grows among a family who loves her but doesn’t fully understand her. She can talk to horses, they teach her how to ride, and she can talk to the spirits others believe in but can’t see. She loves the old fairy tales and later realises they’re not only fantasy and old-wives tales. As is still the case, people fear what they can’t understand, and a newcomer, a priest, tries to change things by getting rid of old beliefs and putting the fear of God into people’s hearts. This can only lead to disaster.

The descriptions of the landscapes, the houses, the creatures, the atmosphere and the weather are beautifully achieved, in a style reminiscent of classical fairy-tales. The characters are also fascinating and we get a good understanding of their psychological make-up and of what moves them. Particularly interesting are the priest and Vasya’s stepmother, who try as they might, can’t reconcile their wishes with what is expected of them, but Dunya, the housemaid and ersatz mother to Vasya is a touching character, the family relations are heart-warming and even the animals have their own personalities. The author explains that she has tried to adapt the Russian names to make them easier for English-speaking audiences, and in my opinions she succeeds in both, maintaining the particular characteristics of Russian names, whilst not making it confusing or disorienting. The poetry of the language is another great success and I found the book impossible to put down.

There are many moments of sadness, scary moments, and also moments of the story that will make us think (Vasya is different and misunderstood, accused of being a witch despite her efforts to save her village and her people, the weight of custom and the role of men and women in traditional societies are also subject to discussion, family ties and religious thoughts…), but it is a magical story that will make us remember the child we once were. A word of warning, this is not a story for young children, and although some of the imagery is familiar as is the case with many of the classics, there are cruel and terrifying moments as well.

As an example of the writing, I wanted to share some of the passages I highlighted:

At last, they saw the city itself (Moscow), lusty and squalid, like a fair woman with feet caked in filth.

“In Moscow, priests are in love with their standing and think overmuch of the gold in their churches. They eat fat meat and preach poverty to the miserable.” (This is Sasha, one of Vasya’s brothers, who later becomes a monk).

Here, Vasya complaining of her lot in life:

“I am foolish. I was born for a cage, after all: convent of house, what else is there?”

“All of my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me….”

Just in case I didn’t make myself clear, I love this book, and although I know it’s not the type of book that everybody will like, I’d recommend that you check a sample or the read inside feature and see what you think. You might be rewarded with a magical reading.

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review 2017-03-14 21:35
From Russia With Love
From Russia With Love (James Bond, #5) - Ian Fleming

Oh dear. Where to start.

 

Reading this book, I got the impression that the original manuscript Fleming turned in to his publisher was deemed too short, and subsequently Fleming was required to pad the word count with what is now erroneously referred to as “Part One: The Plan” (a more apt name would be “Part One: The Villain Monologues”). This theory might also explain why Fleming felt compelled to expand – mid-dialogue, in brackets – on the context of the sly digs the Russian officials were dishing out to each other during their interminable who-should-we-kill-to-flex-our-international-muscles meeting which could have been summed up in a single paragraph (and which bore a striking resemblance to an actual love letter to the British Secret Service, which is apparently the bestest on the whole planet because all the other countries except maybe Sweden are stupid, but Sweden doesn’t care about spy scandals. You really are Great, dear Britain. Sincerely, Russia xoxo).

 

Once we wade through the life story of a nameless masseuse and the minute physical description of her client, followed by the life story of said client, followed by the life story of the different branches of Russian Intelligence and their conference room, followed by that interminable meeting which includes the life stories of the department heads, followed by a chess game, followed by more meetings, followed by the life story of this book’s Bond Girl, we FINALLY get to Part Two, which starts off with a bang, and by “bang” I mean a description of Bond’s current state of ennui that’s nearly as interminable as this sentence.

 

And THEN the real story starts. Slowly. Nearly halfway through the book.

 

Someone forgot to put the thrill in this spy thriller.

 

Unless you’re thrilled by 1950s-style racism, misogyny, homophobia, and British nationalism, in which case you may find this a most thrilling work of fiction.

 

I know I've seen the movie, but I honestly can't remember much about it. After reading the novel, I suspect that may be due to a subconscious act of mental self-defense.

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review 2017-03-14 00:44
The Sea King's Daughter by Aaron Shepard
The Sea King's Daughter: A Russian Legend - Aaron Shepard

Genre:  Music / Romance / Russia / Sea / Folktale / Magic


Year Published: 1997


Year Read:  2017

Publisher:  Skyhook Press

 

Sea King

4.5 stars

I would like to thank NetGalley and Skyhook Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I have always loved reading Russian folktales and when NetGalley offered the timeless classic “The Sea King’s Daughter” by Aaron Shepard along with gorgeous artwork by Gennady Spirin, I was so excited to check this little baby out and I was not disappointed by the results!

Once upon a time, in the city of Novgorod the Great in Russia, there lived a poor but contented musician named Sadko, who would usually play his twelve string gusli during various parties that he was invited to. Everyone at the parties would happily dance to his music and Sadko was content in learning that his music was causing so much joy for the people of Novgorod! One day however, Sadko wanted to find a wife, but none of the Maidens at the parties would marry him due to him being poor. So, when Sadko started playing his gusli over the River Volkhov, the mighty Sea King suddenly popped out of the ocean and invites Sadko to play at his underwater palace. Sadko decides to go to the underwater palace, but once he gets there, the Sea King offers Sadko a chance to marry one of his daughters and stay in his kingdom forever.

Will Sadko marry one of the Sea King’s daughters and will he ever return back to his home in Novgorod?

Read this book to find out!


Wow! I was quite impressed with this book, especially with the numerous nods to Russian culture displayed in the story! I loved the fact that Aaron Shepard incorporated many Russian elements in this story as we get to see the various instruments that are shown in Russia such as Sadko’s gusli and I also loved the fact that the story uses the themes of dancing and music to be a major factor in Sadko’s life and how they affect his decisions to make a happier life for himself. I also loved the dilemma that Aaron Shepard brings to the story as Sadko has to decide if he wants to stay in the Sea King’s palace and marry his daughter or not marry the Sea King’s daughter and stay in his hometown Novgorod as it provides an interesting situation for Sadko and the reader is free to engage in deciding which decision will make Sadko happy. But my most favorite part of this book was the artwork done by Gennady Spirin as the artwork was simply gorgeous to look at! I loved the images of the citizens of Novgorod dancing to Sadko’s music as the citizens just look so cheerful whenever they are dancing and the artwork seems to glow off the pages as you see the people dancing! I especially loved the way that Gennady Spirin designed the underwater palace of the Sea King as it looked truly exquisite and beautiful and I enjoyed seeing the images of various underwater creatures like fish and crabs occupying the underwater palace. But what I loved the best about Gennady Spirin’s artwork were the exotic Russian clothing that the characters wore in the story as I often wanted to wear such clothing and it really brings out the Russian elements of this tale!

Sea King

The reason why I took off half a star from the rating was because I felt that the story was slowly paced and it was sometimes hard for me to get completely engaged in the story because some scenes seemed to drag out too long. Also, for anyone who does not like bittersweet endings in stories, this story does have a bittersweet ending. I will not tell you what happens at the end, but I must admit that I found myself a bit unsatisfied with how abrupt the ending seemed to be.

Overall, “The Sea King’s Daughter” is a truly great book about finding your true happiness in the world and anyone who loves Russian folktales will definitely enjoy this story! I would recommend this book to children ages six and up since the length of the book might be too long for some smaller children to handle.

Review is also on: Rabbit Ears Book Blog

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review 2017-01-09 19:37
Pleasantly Surprised
The Enemies of Versailles: A Novel (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy) - Sally Christie

I'm not even sure how I ended up with an ARC of this book. My reviews of the previous two novels weren't exactly glowing. After the end of the second novel, I had promised not to even bother with the final book in the trilogy. Well if I had a nickle for every broken promise, I'd own a lot more books. 

 

I was not blown away by the final installment of the Mistresses of Versailles trilogy. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. The manner in which the author handled the French revolution and the demise of the nobility was rather well done. I actually found myself feeling sorry for a character. This is quite the accomplishment since most of Christie's leading ladies have been nothing more than brainless, foot-stomping, spoiled brats. The leading ladies in this novel are not much different, especially Madame Adelaide, daughter of Louis XV. The reader is constantly beat over the head with Madame Adelaide's arrogant internal dialogues. I get it. She's a princess. She was raised to believe she's better than everyone else. When one is reading about French princesses who spend most of their time feasting in the halls of Versailles, the arrogance is implied. There's no need to keep reminding me. 

 

Countess du Barry was once again portrayed as just another one of Louis XV brainless mistresses who cares more for shiny jewels and new clothes than whatever is going on in the world around them. However, her end was excellent writing. If the writer had applied that level of emotion and insight to all three of these novels, I would be recommending them until I was blue in the face. 

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