Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Last Romanov

The Last Romanov, by Dora Levy Mossanen.

A tiny drop of blood blossoms in his navel, bubbling like a tiny underground well.

The six-week-old Tsarevich is bleeding.

The Empress presses her lips to her son's chest, slides a trembling finger across the blood worming down his belly. Moon-pale and slightly out of breath, her eyes seek the icons crowding her room to rest on the image of Our Lady of Tsarskoe Selo. Falling to her knees in front of her favorite saint, her lips move in silent prayer. She rests her wet cheeks on the lady's image, begging forgiveness. She had prayed too hard for a son, begged for an heir to the throne, forced God into submission, and He punished her by giving her a sick Tsarevich.

I knew nothing about Russian history from this time, for the most part, but this story is based on true events, while inserting a fictional character into their midst, and the way it moved between past (late 1800s and early 1900s) and present (1991) was great. Darya Borodina is of royal blood herself, and after her mother and father die in an accident, the Tsarina Alexandra, wife to Tsar Nicholas II, invites her to stay with them and help care for her son, the Tsarevich Alexander, who is a hemophiliac and needs constant looking-after.

Darya stays with the family, including Alexander's sisters (the four Grand Duchesses), up until the very end, when there is high political tension and the royal family (SPOILER) is murdered, in July 1918. I made the mistake of reading the author's post-script before finishing the book and found this out, and then was curious as to how these events, which were real, would come about.

Darya also is having an affair with Avram Bensheimer, a Jew, who works in the palace as an artist in the haven the royal family has established there for them. Jewish people were highly persecuted in 1900s Russia, and if the Tsar and Tsarina knew of this affair, they would surely banish Darya from court.

I found the story to be very interesting, especially since most of it was true. Darya is a made-up character, but there were a few family servants that died that day in 1917 as well, who had volunteered to stay with the family. The 1917 execution was not entirely out of the blue - there had been political discontent for some time - but no one was expecting it, and it was a massacre.

The details in this book, as well, are very good, and the writing flows easily. Darya is a multifaceted character with an opal eye that allows her to see more than a normal person would, including the Ancient One who guides her through life, and she uses these powers to help the Tsarevich, her favorite, live day to day with hemophilia. There is another character - Grigori Rasputin - who is a monk with "special powers," and helps Alexander as well.

You can read more about Nicholas II on Wikipedia, too, to get a further sense of his real life and the events surrounding it.

The Last Romanov will be released on April 3, 2012.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Disclosure: I received an ARC of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beautiful Days

Beautiful Days, by Anna Godbersen.

All was briefly calm on the street; he flashed her that exquisitely rare smile once and then he was gone. She could hear him running back to his car and the motor starting up, but she had already turned around and lifted her arms to greet the gathering crowd. There would be singers looking for a big break and debutantes in tiaras who wanted special tables and newspapermen begging for quotes. The taste of Max's mouth was still on her lips, but she couldn't dwell there. The day had been beautifully long, but it was going to be a longer night.

Beautiful Days is the follow-up to Anna Godbersen's Bright Young Things, and there will be three books, possibly more, in the series. It follows two girls, Cordelia and Letty, who have moved to New York City from their small town in Ohio, and the family and friends they meet there. Cordelia's father has recently been murdered and was a bootlegger, and her brother, Charlie, is engaged to their friend Astrid, and is interested in opening a club downtown. The year is 1929, and Prohibition is in full swing, so they must be careful about how and where they serve liquor.

Cordelia was in love with Thom Hale, and showed him a secret passageway inside to the Grey's mansion, but then he shared that information with his associates and one of them was responsible for her father's murder. Now she has a crush on the "flyboy" Max Darby, whose feelings for her sometimes seem to not be reciprocated. Letty, a singer, is looking for her first big break, and is delighted when Cordelia says she can be the opening act at her and Charlie's new club; she is equally crushed when they find a more well-known singer to open. Astrid, while enjoying being engaged to Charlie, wonders if this will be the end of her "wild nights" out on the town, and wants to make sure she gets the most out of them before she gets married.

This book was equally as enjoying as the first (BYT), and I am looking forward to the next installment, The Lucky Ones. The books remind me a little of Gossip Girl meets West Side Story, with all of the bootlegging families fighting, and they are interesting reads that you will devour very quickly. Godbersen has another series, too, called The Luxe, that was also very good, and written in a similar vein as the BYT series.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Underside of Joy

The Underside of Joy, by Seré Prince Halverson.

I recently read a study that claimed happy people aren't made. They're born. Happiness, the report pointed out, is all about genetics - a cheerful gene passed merrily, merrily down from one smiling generation to the next. I know enough about life to understand the old adage that one person can't make you happy, or that money can't buy happiness. But I'm not buying this theory that your bliss can only be as deep as your gene pool.

For three years, I did backflips in the deep end of happiness.

I read this book for the BlogHer Book Club, and it was so good that I devoured it in 2 days. Even more surprisingly, it is the debut novel for the author, and she says in the "thank you" page at the end that it was rescued from the "slush pile" (from which random submissions, rather than asked-for ones, come from), and so I'm very glad it was published.

The Underside of Joy paints a picture of the domestic bliss between Ella Beene and her husband, Joe Capozzi, who has two children: Annie, 6, and Zach, 3. Their birth mother left them when Zach was only a few months old, saying that she wasn't cut out for motherhood, and she went to live with her aunt in Las Vegas and has not been heard from since. One day, Joe goes out to take some photographs, and instead ends up hitting his head and drowning. Ella then realizes she never actually "adopted" the children, and things become more complicated when the birth mother, Paige, who now has pulled her life together, shows up and wants custody of them, even though she hasn't been around for the past three years. The Capozzis rally around Ella and try to help her win custody, though there are further complications - both physical and moral - that abound.

The book is very well-written, and the story could happen to anyone, which is what drew me in, I think. Ella wants to do what is right for the children, and at the beginning she is convinced that only she can care for them; by the end, however, she realizes that they have the right to see Paige as well. There's also a secondary story involving the grocery store that has been in Joe's family for generations, and the way that his grandparents, who were Italian, were treated by the U.S. government during World War II; they were sent to internment camps, even though they weren't Japanese. The ending of the novel is a little bit of a cop-out, in my opinion - a "yay, it all worked out" ending - but it suits the book nonetheless.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 9, 2012

History of a Pleasure Seeker

History of a Pleasure Seeker, by Richard Mason.

They looked at each other in silence. Now it was Jacobina who smiled, and when Piet did not look away, she felt embarrassed. But he was not, and his look conveyed this. She walked past him out of the room and climbed the stairs, wondering if he would follow. When he did, she took a key from the vase on the landing and let them both into her aunt's bedroom and locked the door behind them. But now the spur of her impulsiveness died, leaving her nonplussed and at a disadvantage. What if this young man had no idea? she thought.

But Piet Barol had every idea.

I haven't read anything else by Richard Mason, but this novel immediately draws you in to Piet's world - Amsterdam, 1907. He will be hired by the Vermeulen-Sickerts family as a tutor for their son, Egbert, who refuses to go outside. He will try not to be seduced, or try to seduce, Constance and Louisa, the young ladies of the house; but he makes no such promises with the matron, Jacobina, though of course they don't tell her husband, Maarten, what is going on between them. Jacobina and Maarten have been chaste for a long time, but she doesn't know it's because of a promise he made to God at one point in his life.

Piet is not content with having his run of the household, though, and as soon as Egbert is "cured," he books a cabin in a ship headed for South Africa, where he is to meet another cast of characters too.

This book has a lot of raunchy scenes, where Piet seduces and is seduced by both men AND women, but in a weird way it reminded me of The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (the exception being that it takes place in 1900s Amsterdam, not New York). The characters in the book, including Piet, will seduce you and make you want to finish the novel in one sitting, and it is interesting to see how the Vermeulen-Sickerts family members all differ from one another; Maarten made his riches himself, and now his daughters and wife need not ever work, but Louisa wants to open a clothing shop, an idea which Maarten eventually vetoes.

Some of the sex scenes are definitely not for everyone, but it was amusing to see how Piet seduces when need be and also at other times lets himself be seduced, and how he always ends up on his feet even when his money (and luck) are about to run out. The writing, too, ambles at more of a languid pace, but is very witty throughout.

History of a Pleasure Seeker will be in bookstores on February 14th. 4 stars out of 5.

*Author's Note: I was given a copy of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Night Swimmer

The Night Swimmer, by Matt Bondurant.

This is hard to describe now. I will have to carefully measure the tone. In my mind it is a story without words, only the shrill cry of heartbreak. I think of how much time I spent with my head in the water, swimming long stretches of the lake or the churning green sea. I think of what happened on that windy shore, the broken harbor, a small pub on the edge of the world, and I am ashamed.

The Night Swimmer follows Elly and her husband Fred, who wins a pub in Ireland, complete with a little apartment above it and the taxes paid off. They soon find, however, that the locals don't like "blow-ins" - those who move to Ireland - and they have some trouble with the Corrigans, a "mob family" of sort that pretty much rule the island. Kieran Corrigan is building his own pub complete with guesthouses in the surrounding area, and he doesn't like it when people get in his way.

Elly has a rare skin condition - "congenital hypodermic strata" - a "thin, even layer of subcutaneous fat deposits under the skin all over [her] body, giving [her] skin a dimpled surface." Because of this, she can withstand colder water than most humans, and she revels in swimming in the waters near Ireland, though a few times she encounters dangerous waters and things in the water. This also means that she's not always on the island when she should be, as well.

This book flowed very nicely - almost like poetry - but wasn't really my "cup of tea." Some of the scenes/events were very vague and confused me, until the end when they all pieced themselves together. Matt Bondurant is something of a rising star in the literary world, it seems - his novel The Wettest County in the World is being made into a feature film with Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska - but his prose is more lyrical than substantive, with sometimes makes for hard reading/comprehending. Elly, Fred, and their Irish friends make for interesting characters, but they are not always easy to figure out.

The Night Swimmer will be available in bookstores on January 10th.
2.5 stars out of 5.

*Author's Note: I was given a copy of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

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