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Category Archive for 'Russia/Soviet Union'

How many novels have you seen from the Kamchatka Peninsula? Here Russian scholar Julia Phillips creates an involving and very human story about Kamchatka’s women, while highlighting the various ethnic groups on the peninsula, their past histories, and the life styles they take for granted. Four families and an assortment of local employees, including a customs officer, a major general, a police assistant, and a volcanologist, reflect everyday life in a series of episodes which sometimes overlap. In its isolation and its relatively sparse population, Kamchatka often feels more like an island than a part of greater Russia here, and any dramatic event which occurs is likely to remain within the community in which it occurs, very much in the style of a “closed room” mystery story. Two mysteries involving crimes against women lurk at the heart of this novel, but they are the inspiration for a dramatic portrait of daily life on Kamchatka, developed month by month over the course of a calendar year, and not simply as an end in themselves. Ultimately, author Phillips inspires readers to supply their own interpretations of what is happening within her carefully crafted concluding scenes, thereby creating far more realistic drama than what one finds in the typical suspense novel. Unforgettable!

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Returning to Prague for the location of this novel, after setting The Glass Room there in 2009, author Simon Mawer uses his familiarity with Prague, and his obvious love for it, to create this stirring novel of political history and intrigue. Set during the almost magical Prague Spring of 1968, a time in which Russian influence had waned and a broader view of socialism and some new freedoms were being celebrated by students and political writers in Prague, Mawer focuses on “the fleeting nature of presence” as the Prague Spring is cancelled by the sudden arrival of half a million Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union, which went on to occupy the country for the next twenty-three years. A writer who focuses primarily on people and their lives, rather than on politics or cultural movements, Mawer brings the Prague Spring to life by focusing on two couples who come together in Prague, live and love, engage in adventure, and find their lives permanently changed by the arrival of the Soviet-led troops. The couples represent different backgrounds, and they experience the Prague Spring in different ways. Each has connections with people from Prague who help them during the danger which evolves, providing a broader picture of the events as they affect all the people of Prague, instead of the more limited focus which might have occurred with fewer main characters. This is a carefully developed novel, filled with fascinating history and sidelights involving literature, music, and popular culture, a fine addition to Mawer’s bibliography.

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LOVE IS BLIND, British author William Boyd’s thrilling new novel, reflects the kinds of excitements, revelations, and atmosphere so common to the great Russian romances of the nineteenth century. Partially set in St Petersburg, this is a big, broad, romantic story which moves around the world as Brodie Moncur, a Scottish piano tuner, becomes totally consumed by his love for a married woman and follows his love throughout Europe, always hoping. Certain to appeal to those looking for well written literary excitement and fast-paced action, the novel will also appeal to those with a fondness for Russian novels.

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On March 24, 1946, fifty-four-year-old world chess champion Alexandre Alekhine was found dead in his hotel room at the famed Hotel do Parque in Estoril, Portugal. He had been living there alone for two months during the off-season, first awaiting news of a worthy opponent and then awaiting the details regarding a future match. As Italian author Paolo Maurensig develops this story, Alekhine’s life in several different countries under several different governments begins to unfold, and the suspicious circumstances in which his body was found lead to the inescapable conclusion that this death may not have been an accident. Alekhine was fully dressed and wearing a heavy coat as he sat in his overheated room, apparently eating a meal, though he had attended a full dinner in his honor that same night. The journalist who reported on his death in the Portuguese press, Artur Portela, did so in the face of strong censorship and the influence of the secret police of long-time ruler Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which promptly ended the investigation, making no comment at all. The investigation by Portela, the journalist, provides author Maurensig with details of the case which he develops. Enjoyable as a picture of the times, whether or not you are a chess aficionado.

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Julie Lekstrom Himes, in Mikhail and Margarita, writes an enthralling companion book honoring one of her favorite novels, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In HImes’s novel, Mikhail and Margarita, Bulgakov himself is a sympathetic main character. Himes, like Bulgakov, a physician and writer, has traveled in Russia, and has spent a year doing research for this book, and seven years writing it. The resulting novel, remarkable in its ability to bring author Mikhail Bulgakov and his times fully to life for the reader, recreates Bulgakov’s “thoughts” so effectively that the reader feels as if the author has inserted actual autobiographical commentary. The story of a romantic triangle, the novel features Bulgakov himself; Margarita, an attractive younger woman; and Ilya Ivanovich, an official in Stalin’s dictatorship. Many overlaps with Bulgakov’s own novel, this novel develops at an extraordinary pace, both thematically and dramatically. Serious, well developed, and consummately literary, this is one of the outstanding books of the year.

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