The Mirrored World by Debra Dean – Book Review

The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

Xenia has always been a strong young woman, sure of what she wants. When she marries it is as much for love as anything else, and Xenia desires little more than to have a child with her husband. However, Xenia fails to conceive for many years, and when she does conceive she loses. Always sensitive and prone to prophetic dreams, the last straw for Xenia is when her husband dies in a freak accident following a ball thrown by Empress Elizabeth at the palace. Before long, Xenia has lost all reason and disappears, only to reappear some years later as the soothsayer and healer, St. Xenia.

Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is one of the last books I read before I started blogging and I adored it, so when I heard she had another novel coming out, I jumped to read it. In some ways, The Mirrored World is slightly less accessible than the WWII-era The Madonnas of Leningrad, as many Westerners may never have heard of Russia’s St. Xenia. The Mirrored World is a reimagining and humanizing of the saint’s life from the point of view of her cousin, and I can’t help but think it would be somewhat more meaningful and compelling if one is familiar with the saint in the first place.

That being said, The Mirrored World is still a strong book. Dean’s writing is lovely, and her main character – Xenia’s cousin – is well-drawn. Xenia herself is somewhat vaguer, but as she becomes a holy fool, that is a wise decision, as attempting to get inside the mind of a disturbed and grieving woman who disappears and reemerges as a soothsayer seems a recipe for disaster.

The Mirrored World is an interesting look at a historical personage about whom I knew very little. Even if you have no inherent interest in St. Xenia, Dean’s writing still makes this a book worth reading. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois – Book Review

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois
Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House

The highlight of Irina’s young life was the day she finally beat her father at chess. What she didn’t realize at the time, was that this loss signaled the beginning of his Huntington’s disease-related decline. Even less did she understand that this was something that would some day happen to her as well. Now, as a scholar and casual chess player, there is little that bothers Irina more than the idea that she will slowly begin to lose her mind – something that, according to her genetic counselor, has a 50% chance of happening not long after her 30th birthday. In fact, she finds this so abhorrent that she welcomes the idea of a disease that might kill her faster, before she can lose her sense of self:

Please, please, please let me get AIDS so I can die of pneumonia, so my brain is the last thing out the door, so that when I die, it is actually me dying and not somebody else. –p. 24

Almost equally bad is the idea of putting her mother – and anyone else – through the pain and expense of dealing with her excruciatingly slow demise. When she inadvertently gets close to a man, she knows it is time to go.  Luckily for Irina, she has a place and a purpose in mind. Before he lost himself, Irina’s father was a fan of chess and the Russian chess masters. He wrote a letter to the young man who would become the Grandmaster of chess, Aleksandr Bezetov, about the nature of imminent loss and received as a result a non-answer from a woman Irina presumes must have been Aleksandr’s secretary. With nothing else in particular to live for, Irina travels to Russia in an attempt to track down Bezetov, who is now running for president against Putin, to see if there is anything else she can learn about her father or receive an answer to his question.

A Partial History of Lost Causes is told alternately from Irina and Aleksandr’s viewpoints, a device method that works particularly well in this case. Although Irina’s story covers only a short period of time in the present, Aleksandr’s begins during the Cold War, when he moved to Leningrad to begin playing chess competitively. DuBois manages to develop both of her characters equally well, Irina by putting the reader directly in her fearful and haunted thoughts, and Aleksandr by showing the path his life took to get him to the point where he would run as an opposition candidate in a land where the opposition has no real chance to do anything other than perhaps be assassinated.

In A Partial History of Lost Causes, character, plot, and writing come together in a gorgeous and engrossing package. As a reader, you find yourself lost in the events that DuBois has strung together, invested in the lives of these two characters, both of whom face the possibility of death around every corner, and suddenly DuBois knocks you over with a sentence that is so striking, smart, and evocative that you must pause to read it over again and again.

The crowd had a surface-level patina of triumph, but there was a suggestion of submerged mania, too, as though they were just about to produce pitchforks and storm the Bastille. -p. 227

Added to all of this is the additional drama of modern Russian politics. As a member of an opposition party, Aleksandr believes that, in many ways, Putin’s regime is no better than many of the oppressive Soviet-era regimes, even believing in the government’s culpability in a number of alleged terrorist plots. For the majority of American readers who likely have little knowledge of current Russian politics, this may be a very intriguing subplot, one that will linger long after the book is over.

Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie – Book Review

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Published by Random House

How does a German princess of no great account become the greatest, longest reigning empress of Russia? Catherine IIs story seems an improbable one, to put it mildly, and yet the girl born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst ended up ruling Russia for 34 years and earning the appellation Catherine the Great.

Catherine was an incredibly complex woman, and the story of her life could have easily devolved into either a morass inaccessible by all who had not studied her life and Russian history or an overly simplified treatment leaving only a shadow of the powerful ruler. In Robert K. Massie’s capable hands, however, both pitfalls are deftly avoided.

Over 600 pages of Catherine the Great, Massie presents a portrait of Catherine that is both nuanced and easy to follow. She is a vivid character from the beginning, even before her travels to Russia and marriage to Peter. What is particularly impressive, though, is that Catherine is not the only fully realized character; both Peter and his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, fairly leap off the page. Other characters, particularly many of Catherine’s lovers, were also impressively drawn. Massie’s style is to get into the heads and motivations of the people whose lives he is chronicling, which leads to compelling and realistic historical personages, regardless of how sympathetic they were as human beings.

It is precisely Massie’s ability to connect his readers to the people he is writing about that makes Catherine the Great such an immensely readable biography. It is not an exaggeration to say that it reads much like some of the best historical fiction, if perhaps a bit more dense by virtue of all of the rich historical detail layered in Massie’s every sentence.

In addition to bringing historical figures to life and writing a biography that can hardly be put down, Massie has written an incredibly complex and complete history of Catherine’s life. One particularly effective technique for making all of this comprehensible is most evident in Massie’s discussions of the later years of Catherine’s reign. Instead of relating events in a strictly chronological manner, which would have involved overlapping many complicated series of events, Catherine the Great has a structure in which chronology informs thematic organization. This could have been equally problematic to straight chronology, but Massie excels at weaving in mentions of events from earlier chapters so that readers can form for themselves a comprehensive timeline of Catherine’s life, and what events – both personal and political – might be influencing her at any given time.

All in all this is a superb biography. Not only will it earn a place in my permanent collection, but it will also ensure that I will read more of Massie’s work in the years to come. Very highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.

* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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BOOK CLUB – The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp, which is being released in paperback by Picador on October 25th (website | twitter | facebook). For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

Little K was a prima ballerina, the lover of the last Russian tsar. A woman whose determination brought her into the beds of many members of the imperial family, but whose brilliant future was derailed when Russia as she knew it began to disappear, along with her beloved Tsar Nicholas II, and something where the concubine of the Romanovs was a dangerous thing to be. But perhaps it would be best to let Little K introduce herself in her own words, as this is a story she has been endlessly remembering for the past 50 years:

My name is Mathilde Kschessinska, and I was the greatest Russian ballerina on the imperial stages. But the world I was born to, the world I was bred for, is gone, and all the players in it are also gone – dead, murdered, exiled, walking ghosts. -p. 3

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Devourer of Books

Reviews by Lola

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option, the second option will subscribe you only to replies of your own comments). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • Near the beginning of the book, Little K makes this somewhat provocative statement  about Nicki’s marriage to Alix. Do you think, based on the events of the book, that she was correct about this?
    And what kind of wife would I have made him? Could I have stood his future – imprisonment and

    a martyr’s death? I can assure you this: if I had been his wife, that would not have been his future. -p. 23
  • What do you think was the root of Little K’s determination to be part of the tsar’s life? How did you feel about the way she positioned her son?
  • Do you think that Little K fully understood the causes of the revolution? What helped or hindered her in this?
  • Do you think that Sharp made the causes of the revolution clear to the reader?

12 review copies of The True Memoirs of Little K were provided by Picador in order to facilitate this discussion. Thank you!

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