The Patriots by Sana Krasikov

wp-1491080294065.jpgSana Krasikov’s debut novel, The Patriots, is a compelling account of one woman’s experience in Soviet Russia under Stalin’s regime.

Florence Fein is a young, idealistic woman growing up in 1930s Brooklyn, but the capitalist ‘American Dream’ does not inspire her. With all the fervency of her youthful convictions, Florence believes that America has nothing to offer her. Instead, she emigrates to Russia to pursue her utopian ideals, and also “one particular dark-eyed Soviet man”.

As she sets sail from New York, waving her family goodbye, she is blithely unaware of the magnitude of the events that will follow her decision to emigrate. Reading The Patriots, I was impressed by her grit and tenacity, leaving her family and her native New York behind to journey thousands of miles to an industrial city, Magnitogorsk, in the Ural mountains of Russia. For a moment, as a reader, I became swept up in Florence’s girlish enthusiasm. But the knowledge of things to come soon overshadows any naive optimism you have at the beginning.

“Florence could feel a constriction in her chest…She had been foolish enough to hope that whatever she was walking into would affect no one but herself. Now the truth was catching up with her at the speed of her galloping heartbeat…Now they had summoned her. And they knew everything”


Image: Triumfalnaya Square, Moscow (1934)

Decades later, her son Julian travels to Moscow to find out the truth about his mother when her KGB file is released. For years, he struggled to understand Florence and her refusal to criticize the political regime that destroyed their family. Now, he hopes, the truth will come to light.

The book jumps between years and decades, beginning in 1934 as Florence starts her voyage, then rewinding to 1932, 1934 to 2008, 1940 to 1948… Sometimes I find that changes in chronology disrupt the flow of a narrative, but that isn’t the case with The Patriots. Once Krasikov has set up the back story for each character, the links between the plot lines become clear.

Krasikov’s characters are so vivid that you almost think you are watching events unfold on a movie screen, as one of the reviews praises on the back cover. Although the characters are fictional, the book is based on true events and Florence’s story could be viewed as a representative for one of the many Americans who were trapped in Russia during the Stalinist era, their passports confiscated and unable to leave the country.

The Patriots is a novel which encompasses many themes — identity, family, love, loyalty, self-deception and the dangers of political ideology. It’s a beautifully written epic novel, and it will certainly be one of my stand-out reads of the year.

The Patriots (2017) is published by Granta Books. I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Books I Read in March

It’s the start of another month and time for another literary round-up of the books I’ve read recently. In March, I read one non-fiction title and three novels. Let’s start with the non-fiction book: a biography of Jane Austen by historian Lucy Worsley.

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. At just forty-one, she died tragically young. The cause of her death is unknown, but some scholars have suggested Addison’s or Hodgkin’s disease. However, some new research recently came to light — it’s possible that Jane was unintentionally poisoned by arsenic, a popular ingredient in Georgian medicine.

Worsley’s book, Jane Austen at Home, is one of the publications timed to commemorate her death. I’m an Austen fan and I’ve read several well-researched biographies (Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin is one of the best), so I was already familiar with the facts of Austen’s life. However, Worsley has taken these facts, along with historical context, letters and info from other sources, and woven them into a highly enjoyable book.

After I finished reading, I felt like I knew Jane Austen much better than before. There’s always going to be a certain amount of mystery about her life, especially as her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her private letters after Jane’s death. Worsley avoids speculating too much, while also suggesting ways for the reader to interpret the events of Jane’s life.

When you think of Jane Austen, images of grand country houses, sprawling parkland and wealthy young men probably come to mind. But Austen wasn’t rich, and her books are set in a world which she could not fully access — she was looking from the outside in. As an unmarried woman, she was forced to rely on a small allowance from her father and, later, from her brothers. Money was a source of concern and after her father’s death, she was dependent on her wealthier brothers to provide her with a home.

I found parts of the book quite moving. She wrote six of the finest novels in the English language, but much of her time outside writing was spent on day-to-day housekeeping. As she wrote in one of her letters to Cassandra: “Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb

She needed space to write and be creative, but she didn’t even have a room of her own. As Worsley points out, it’s lucky for us that she never married. Otherwise, she would have almost certainly produced babies rather than books.Despite having to rely so much on her family, Austen comes across as being an independent spirit (as much as a woman could be independent in the 1800s), who was entertaining, witty and perceptive. Whether you’re a dedicated Austen fan like me or someone who only knows a little about her, I’d recommend Worsley’s biography as an insightful and enjoyable read — 4/5.

My next three reads were fiction, and they all have very different settings: Korea and Japan, modern-day America, and Soviet Russia.

One of them was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — I received a free digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for honest feedback. It’s an epic saga, set in Korea and Japan, which spans eight decades and four generations of the same family.

It begins with Sunja, a young girl who becomes pregnant by a yakuza — a Japanese gangster. When a Christian minister, Isak, offers to marry her, he saves her from being a societal outcast as a unmarried mother and takes her to start a new life in Japan.

The historical context was eye-opening for me, as I didn’t realize that Korea was under Japanese occupation from 1910 until 1945 or how badly the Korean people were treated in Japan at that time. Many were forced to live in segregated areas and were viewed as second-class citizens.

At almost 500 pages, Pachinko is certainly an epic read. I don’t mind long books if they hold my attention all the way through, but with this one, I felt a stronger emotional connection with Sunja and the characters at the beginning of the story. Later on, around two thirds of the way through, the plot became rushed and some chapters/sections ended abruptly.

Without including any spoilers, I felt that some of the characters’ actions weren’t fully explored towards the end.  I was also surprised that major world events which happened during the time of the novel — two world wars, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — were barely mentioned at all. I don’t think it will be one of my stand-out reads of 2017, but it was a worthwhile read — 3.5/5

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny was my next March read. I received an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review. It’s a sweet, funny novel with delightful characters who made me laugh out loud. The plot focuses on a married couple, Graham and Audra, and their son.

Audra is Graham’s second wife and her personality is a polar opposite from his first wife, Elspeth. Elspeth, a lawyer, is sophisticated, quiet and introverted while Audra is a social butterfly who thinks nothing of inviting strangers for dinner and delights in making friends with anyone.

Standard Deviation is a light, easy read. Its strength lies in the vividness of the characters and Heiny’s gift for writing entertaining, perceptive observations and dialogue — 4/5

My last March read — The Patriots by Sana Krasikov — took me to Soviet-era Russia. The publishing house Granta Books sent me a copy to review, and I’m planning on publishing a longer post about it next week. It’s a compelling novel which follows the life of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman growing up in 1930s Brooklyn.

Florence knows that she doesn’t want her life to be confined by her family’s expectations, and she leaves New York to embark on a career working in Moscow. But she soon becomes entangled in Communist Russia, and her American citizenship can’t protect her.

“Florence could feel a constriction in her chest…She had been foolish enough to hope that whatever she was walking into would affect no one but herself. Now the truth was catching up with her at the speed of her galloping heartbeat…Now they had summoned her. And they knew everything.”

Decades later, her son Julian visits Moscow and finds that his mother’s KGB file has been opened to the public. In this file, he finds out the truth and the events that his mother was always reluctant to speak about.

The Patriots alternates between Florence and Julian’s perspectives, between decades and across two different continents. Krasikov’s writing is well-researched and detailed, building up a picture of the characters’ motivations for their actions and also the historical setting of the book. An excellent read — 5/5.

What did you read in March? Do you like the sound of any of the books in this post?

What’s on My Playlist

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The Alhambra, Spain. Photo credit: Victoriano Izquierdo at Unsplash

Since I signed up to Spotify and discovered that it suggests new music for you based on the artists you like, I’ve been branching out in my musical tastes. Logging onto Spotify and having a mosey about is like going down a veritable rabbit hole: you don’t know what you’re going to find, and you can end up somewhere that’s very different to where you started. Continue reading

Books I Read in February

Like last month, I only read two full books in February, although I’m a good portion of the way through two other books which I’m reading at the moment. The pace of my reading has slowed, and I usually only fit a few chapters in during an evening. We’ll see if this ‘two books a month’ average continues through the year. I hope not, as there is so much that I want to read and I’ll fall behind!

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Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks was my first February read. It’s a slim novel which looks at the past of a retired doctor, Robert Hendricks. The book moves between his present-day life as a retired doctor in the 1980s, his experiences in the trenches of World War II and, later, his work as a psychiatrist in the 1960s.

The plot is hinged on a letter that our protagonist receives from a mysterious stranger, retired neurosurgeon Alexander Pereira, who invites him to a small island on the south coast of France. There, Hendricks confronts aspects of his past, and his father’s suffering in the First World War. The traumas of the twentieth century are never far from the surface. Continue reading

I Want to Spend All My Money on Books

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The Leeds Library, UK. Photo by Michael D. Beckwith. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I won’t, of course, seeing as it wouldn’t be very practical. But, you know, a girl can dream! My idea of luxury is having a house with a dedicated reading room: somewhere with wall-to-wall books, a cosy woollen armchair, a dog to curl up by my feet and, best of all, unlimited time to read and think. An old English country estate, with a large house and extensive grounds, would suit my requirements perfectly.

But, alas, I don’t have millions in the bank, and I don’t actually spend much money on books anyway. Most of the books I read are galley copies, also known as advance reader copies (ARC), and I usually get them through publishers or NetGalley.  They are uncorrected proof copies which publishers distribute to generate some publicity and get people talking ahead of the official publication of a book.

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‘Happiness is a warm puppy’

Happiness is a warm puppy” — Charles M. Schulz

I know that some of my readers are eager for an update on Aimée, the blenheim Cavalier King Charles spaniel that I brought home at the beginning of September last year. She was three months old then; now she is nine months and growing into a beautiful dog.

Here’s how she looked then. She was so tiny that she was smaller than my cat!

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And here she is now:

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Books I Read in January

I only read two books in January, and I’m a quarter of the way through another.

My first January read was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  It tells the story of a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1922. But his house arrest happens to be inside Moscow’s finest hotel, Hotel Metropol, as he was already resident there when sentenced.

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A Gentleman in Moscow (hardback). Published September 6th 2016 by Viking

Over the course of 30 years in the hotel, the Count befriends several of the guests — some come and go while others remain part of the novel’s fabric. The concept of the novel is interesting: the hotel remains static, a stage on which characters enter and leave, but outside the world is changing.

The book begins in the 1920s, shortly after the Russian Revolution, and ends in the 1950s, in the midst of Soviet Russia. Although I was vaguely aware of external events (one character is sent to a gulag prison camp, while Rostov’s friend Mishka writes poetry which is censored), as readers, we are sheltered from all this. The hotel’s warmth and charm is an oasis away from the harsh political climate.

‘Warmth and charm’ sums up the whole book really. Beyond a passing mention here and there, Towles doesn’t elaborate on the brutalities of Russia’s history during the novel’s thirty-year span. It is historical fiction, of a kind, but it’s dressed up in finery and the historical details focus more on luxuries (orchestral music, Swiss Breguet timepieces, fine dining) than gritty reality.

“Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?” one of the characters asks. “Does an orchestra need a bassoon?” Rostov replies.

Although it has been given acclaimed reviews in the media, I thought it was just so-so: entertaining but not outstanding. I enjoyed it as an escapist read and it is well-written, but I’m not sure that it merits all the hype it is getting (rave reviews from NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others). A review I read on Goodreads classified it as ‘a fairy tale for adults’, which I think is very apt. It’s full of whimsy and charm, but lacks real substance. I’d rate it three stars out of five.

My next book in January was Sweet Caress by William Boyd. In this novel, Amory Clay is the central protagonist. Born in 1908, Amory develops an early interest in photography and aspires to make it her profession, at a time when it wasn’t considered an acceptable career for women.

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Sweet Caress (paperback). Published May 17th 2016 by Bloomsbury USA.

Boyd charts Amory’s progress through the early twentieth century as she becomes an intrepid photographer. Her work takes her to pre-war Berlin at first, where she takes secretive photos at an after-hours night club, and later to New York, London and Paris.

She specializes in photojournalism, documenting fascist marches in London, the aftermath of World War II and, later, the conflict in Vietnam. In a stint as a fashion photographer for American Mode, Amory finds that although she is good at it, she is bored by the predictable poses and glossy veneer of fashion photos, preferring instead to shoot photos from a less artificial angle.

A number of small black-and-white photos are dotted throughout the book, with captions that relate to Amory’s photos. They are anonymous and are all photos that Boyd has found in junk shops and yard sales.

Of course, the photos are all representations of fictional characters, but they make the people in the novel seem more vivid and real. Boyd uses one of these found photos (below) as a frontispiece, depicting Amory as a young woman in the 1920s.

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Photo: unknown. Found at a bus stop in Dulwich, London.

The novel is narrated from a first-person perspective, and I really felt that I got to ‘know’ Amory as a character. It’s a mark of an excellent novel when you turn the last page and feel just a little bereft, wishing you could spend more time with its characters.

In the acknowledgements at the end, there is a list of female names: the real-life trailblazing female photographers who inspired Boyd’s depiction of Amory. Sweet Caress left me wanting to research the fascinating lives of these twentieth-century women, most of whom are now unknown.

Currently reading: Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks.

What did you read in January? It doesn’t just have to be books — if you read a really great article online, share that too!

Memories of a Greek childhood

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In some ways, my childhood wasn’t dissimilar to Gerald Durrell’s. When I was ten, I lived on the Greek island of Lesvos for six months while my mother was doing academic research there.

Being home-schooled, I was brought up with the luxury of having the freedom to learn outside a classroom. And while my textbooks accompanied us to Greece, I spent a lot of time — like Durrell — observing the animals on the island. Continue reading

And so a New Year begins…

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Photo credit: Annie Spratt

I’m not sure how I feel about New Year’s resolutions. On the one hand, it’s nice to think that we can turn over a fresh page and start out anew. But life just isn’t that simple: only 8% of people who make a New Year’s resolution actually achieve their goal.

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Reading in translation: getting a global perspective

Gaining insight into other cultures and perspectives is one of the things I most enjoy about reading. And, of course, books can be therapeutic too. Susan Chira’s recent New York Times article, In Trying Times, the Balm of Jane Austen, rings true.

Returning to old favourites and the reassuring stability of the classics can be just what you need when times are tough, so it isn’t surprising that bibliotherapy is growing in popularity. After all, many of us need some sort of escapism when the world seems to be getting more turbulent by the day.

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