Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Ornatrix - a sadistic gem


Hey, commies!
On occasion, I stumble across a novel that challenges my boundaries (and I have a pretty high pain threshold when it comes to cruelty and depravity in literature and film). You do not need to have any cosmetic flaws or suffer from a body dysmorphic disorder to cringe through Kate Howard's novel The Ornatrix. It's a very graphic and lush study of human depravity and the distorted value system where a woman affected by a birth defect becomes an outcast. I wish I could say the world has changed for the better, but it hasn't. So, if you have a strong stomach, please get your copy.

Synopsis:
Cursed from birth by the bird-shaped blemish across her face, Flavia spends much of her life hidden from the outside world. Lonely and alienated even from her family, she sabotages her sister’s wedding in a fit of jealous rage and is exiled to serve in the convent of Santa Giuliana. Soon she finds that another exile dwells in the convent: a former Venetian courtesan named Ghostanza whose ostentatious appearance clashes with the otherwise austere convent and sparks gossip throughout the town. When Ghostanza claims Flavia as her ornatrix―her personal hairdresser and handmaid―Flavia is pulled into a world of glamor and concealment where admiration is everything and perfection is the ultimate, elusive goal. And she soon finds that with beauty in her grasp, in the form of the poisonous but stunning white lead cerussa, Flavia will do anything to leave her marked face behind.

My thoughts:
I am the first one to say how much I hate artificial feel-good "redemption" stories with a fake sort-of-happy ending slapped on. I value dark humor, sarcasm, even sadism, but this novel challenged my boundaries. It reminded me of this indie movie "Welcome to the Doll House" from the 1990s, featuring an unattractive girl who gets bullied by the whole world, from her classmates to her own parents. It ends on a very dour note. The girl does NOT turn into a beautiful princess after being kissed by a noble prince who sees beyond her homely exterior. And she does not even get her revenge on the popular girls. She ends up in the same underdog position in which she started. Sitting through that movie was like watching a wounded puppy getting kicked time after time. And that's the feelings I got from this novel. It's very hard to read for someone who has been through bullying and heard disparaging remarks about one's appearance. The world is not very kind to women who are not attractive, and this novel reiterates it time after time. Yes, you're ugly. It sucks to be you. I could tell that the author herself has a chip on her shoulder. Still trying to figure out what her position is, and how much of her own experience she put into the plot development or whose side she is on. I cannot tell if she is a pretty girl who enjoys humiliating an ugly girl, or if she is an ugly girl reveling in her plight. Either way, the novel has a few very disturbing episodes featuring some of the most twisted acts of depravity one can think of.

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. 

Synopsis:
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.

Synopsis
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.

Synopsis:
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.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Rembrandt’s Angel - a mystery thriller by Steven M. Moore

Greetings, commies!
This is probably my last post for 2017. Let's wrap it up with a challenging and stimulating thriller by Steven M. Moore Rembrandt's Angel.

Synopsis
A Neo-Nazi conspiracy threatens Europe.
Esther Brookstone’s life is at a crossroads. A Scotland Yard inspector who specializes in stolen art, she’s reluctantly considering retirement. A three-time widow, she can’t quite decide whether paramour and colleague Interpol Agent Bastiann van Coevorden should be husband number four. Decisions are put on hold while she and Bastiann set out to thwart a neo-Nazi conspiracy financed in part by artworks stolen during World War II. Among the stolen art is the masterpiece “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a work Esther obsesses about recovering.
The case sends the intrepid pair on an international hunt spanning several European countries and the Amazon jungle. Evading capture and thwarting death, Esther and Bastiann prove time and again that adrenaline-spiked adventures aren’t just for the young.


My thoughts
There are so many elements that set this book apart from the typical Dan Brownesque mystery/thriller. First of all, it it set in the near future, 2020s. At first I thought it was a typo and then realized it was deliberate. There are vague references to certain political and economic reforms in Europe, but the overall ambiance is not post-apocalyptic. The most unique feature about this novel is the female protagonist, Esther. If you are tired of female leads who look like sexy French art students or Playboy bunnies, Esther Brookstone is delightfully refreshing, as she defies cliches. A 60-something going on 35, a three time widow (rather suspicious) and still open to new romantic adventures, childless, feminine yet able to hold her ground in a male dominated profession, she is like a female version of James Bond. I am so grateful that Esther does not have a chip on her shoulder and doesn't engage in long tirades about how hard it is to be an older female. Thank you, author, for sparing me the feminist rant. Esther has a Peter-Pannish quality to her. Now, what makes this novel challenging is the location hopping. Just wanted to throw it out there. The author does his readers a service by listing all the characters in the introduction. But if you are reading a Kindle version, it will be hard to keep going back and checking who is who. So I recommend reading this book when you are able to focus on it, not when you have three other novels in progress.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Wuthering Heights 2011 - racially charged torture porn

Greetings commies!

Sometimes you come across a cinematic equivalent of a second trimester abortion, and this particular adaptation of Wuthering Heights is just that. I watched it on my iPhone while on a business trip in Italy. There are so many things wrong with it, I had to share them.

There are several notable figures flipping in their graves, from Emily Bronte herself to Martin Luther King. Nothing spells "social responsibility" like having a hysterical white woman slack, kick, lick and step on a black man. The ethnicity of Healthcliff never was verified, but it is implied that he is of Romani descent. Substituting a gypsy for a black man is a bit of a stretch. I don't know if the director wanted to make the story somehow more "relevant" to modern audiences. Either way, the attempt failed miserably. If anything, it trivializes racism. A black man in the English moorland sticks out like a sore thumb. The Earnshaws are reduced to a bunch of filthy, violent rednecks. I almost feel this movie should have been done as a modernized version, set in the American south, with a poor white family fostering a black kid. It would have been more convincing. I will not even comment on the casting and acting. Catherine's eyes cannot decide if they are brown or blue, and the chicken pox mark on her forehead keeps moving as she gets older. All in all, this particular adaptation is a lame piece of racially charged torture porn.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Betrothed to the Red Dragon - a short story of Art and Gwen


Greetings, commies!
If you are looking for a quick engaging read between your Thanksgiving meal courses, consider Kim Rendfeld's short story Betrothed to the Red Dragon.

Synopsis
Dinas Powys, 479: Queen Gwenhwyfar is content to rule alone. But with her captain dead and the Saxons raiding their way toward her stronghold, she turns to the general Artorius to lead her warriors. His price is more than she wants to pay—her hand in marriage.

My thoughts:
I  hope this short story develops into a novel. I have read both of Kim Rendfeld's prior novels set in the Dark Ages, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar and found both to be meticulously researched and satisfying. I also follow her blog in which she sheds light on many common misconceptions about the social norms in the Middle Ages. There are so many takes on the iconic power couple Art and Gwen. In the past decades there has been a shift in the portrayal of King Arthur and his consort. Unsurprisingly, Rendfeld's queen Gwen is no shivering submissive lamb. Even though she does not disdain cosmetics, she is a savvy politician. I can see her played by a younger Kristen Scott Thomas. I hope that "Betrothed to the Red Dragon" blossoms into a full-length novel.