Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: For Russian History Buffs, The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges

I was probably not a normal teenager.  (Is there such a thing?) While my friends were reading Judy Blume, I was reading Robert K. Massie's page-turning nonfiction work, Nicholas and Alexandra, along with a lot of other history.  Monarchs were my focus, and if they had a connection to Queen Victoria, then so much the better.

Even I didn't have this historical reading background, I'm honestly not sure I would have been as involved with Robin Bridges' new work, The Gathering Storm.  The Russian monarchy and aristocracy, particularly as it intersects with other European royal families, is pretty complicated, to say nothing of mastering the naming nomenclature and understanding who is who.  Bridges doesn't shy away from describing multiple members of the Romanov family and the intricately related members of the aristocracy, and I definitely relied on my background knowledge to escape confusion.

That caution aside, I thought her depiction of late 19th century aristocratic Russia to be outstandingly accurate in reference to the nonfiction I've enjoyed about the period, but Bridges takes this interest a step further by adding in a paranormal element.  This addition works incredibly well since the mysticism that is such a part of Russian culture of this time lends a dark and sinister quality to reading about these historical figures (hello, Rasputin anyone?). 

 In 1888, Katerina Alexandrova, Duchess of Oldenberg, is a pretty debutante in one of the most exclusive finishing schools in St. Petersburg, but she has aspirations to become a doctor, a goal supported by her loving father and reviled by her mother who would like to see her married well.  Unknown to her family is a dark secret Katerina has kept since she was a child.  She can raise the dead.

Like so many paranormal protagonists, she decides to go the denial route for a little while, but naturally it backfires as her coming out to society exposes her to powerful figures with an understanding of magic.  To these individuals, Katerina's dark power is obvious and she finds herself first being judged by the handsome but critical Grand Duke George Alexandrovich, the tsar's son, no stranger to magic himself.  She also discovers that several prominent friends of the family also have magical alliances and vampires exist (although necromancers like Katerina are extremely rare) at the highest levels.  Despite evidence being stacked against her, it becomes apparent that Katerina loves her tsar and wants to help however she can, even if her power frightens her as much as the people who want to control her.

Having a leg up on the history and naming piece made me understand some of the subtleties of what was going on (like how Tsarevitch Nicholas will undoubtedly end up with Princess Alix).  There were a few pieces that bothered me in the reading.  At one point while in the hospital, the nurse comes in to hang another bag of plasma.  Um...really?  In 1888?  I know that transfusions would have been common but I can't find a lot of evidence which supports that the separation of plasma took place often in this time period, to say nothing of plasma transfusions being routinely given until World War I.  Maybe they were, but I can guarantee that if the M*A*S*H episodes I watch in reruns still are using glass bottles, I'm betting late 19th century Russia would be using a similar technology.  Because the book is written solely from Katerina's perspective, the romance between her and George feels a little uneven but I still think he is royally cute.  I'll be interested to see how far she sticks to his actual life.  Is he going to do the royal yacht tour with his brother the tsarevitch in 1890?  Will he still die mysteriously in a motorcycle accident in 1899 or will it be magic related?  The possibilities are endless.

The second book in the trilogy has a release date of October 9, 2012, and the cover for The Unfailing Light is even more beautiful than the first book.   Katerina is bound for medical school but must stay home and spend another year at finishing school because of a supernatural threat to the tsar that only she can help repel.  The dark forces battling for power want to not only topple him but also use her in their bid for supremacy.

Bridges' blog (also published to the front page of her website and to her Goodreads account) and she posts regularly on her Facebook account.  I'm looking forward to following her work and see how this trilogy lends a new perspective on Russian history.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: A Treatment of Faith or Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

I have been waiting to read this book for two years.  How can that be?  I heard Melissa Walker back in 2010 talk about the concept of basing a book around the evangelical Christian concept of Hell Houses and how that event could be a catalyst for a protagonist's personal growth.  Having just watched a documentary about Hell Houses at the time, I was reeling at just how the beliefs and passions of evangelical teens get channeled through this medium.

Small Town Sinners is a brilliantly written novel about the moment when a teenager begins to move away from their family, bonds with their peers and begins to undertake the important work of questioning what is important in their lives in order to understand what they, not their parents, believe.  Lacey Anne Byer lives as the dutiful daughter of a preacher and his wife, but at the age of 16 and on the cusp of her junior year, she is poised to find an opportunity to be in the limelight for once.  She believes that her church's upcoming Hell House is the opportunity she needs, by trying out for the most difficult part, "abortion girl."

A suicide scene from a Hell House
Hell Houses, for those of you who don't know, are many evangelical churches answer to traditional Halloween haunted houses.  While they originally took various incarnations, by the 1990s, many churches (and later the huge mega-churches or parachurches) particularly in the West began putting on complex, themed Hell Houses, which take visitors via a guide through a variety of staged vignettes depicting "sins" such as homosexuality, abortion, suicide, premarital sex, and occultism.  At the end of the tour, visitors are usually presented with a scene of hell and suffering and then taken into (or given the choice to enter) an all white serene environment in which church and youth leaders ask each individual if they are ready to accept Jesus Christ or consider learning more about fundamentalist Christianity.

Melissa Walker, who as a writer has shown a tremendous amount of diversity with the topics she has tackled (some light and fun and others deep), had pitched the concept of Hell Houses as a magazine article she wanted to write.  She interviewed dozens of various teenagers involved in this life and with various perspectives on their faith and felt that their voices and personalities resonated so much with her that she decided to write a book showing what it would be like to wrestle with faith in a modern world.

I think the reason that I was so wowed by this book was because Lacey Anne was a compelling voice.  Often quieter characters in YA literature are either painfully shy or about to undergo some huge personality change and unleash their inner extrovert, but Lacey was terrific just the way she was.  Yes, she was interested in showing what she was capable of in testing her limits with her acting for the Hell House but was essentially the same thoughtful, observant person she always was.

When Ty Davis moves into town, Lacey is drawn to him and he to her.  Ty was a FABULOUS love interest.  He belongs to the same church as Lacey (his aunt is the church librarian) but he has a mysterious past.  Ty models to Lacey that she can question the inconsistencies or hypocrisy of the people around them who all espouse the ideals of Christianity (but who often fall short of that goal) including Lacey's parents.  He's not disrespectful, nor is Lacey's having faith ever in question, but the message is more button Lacey's father takes up on the bulletin board "Love is the Answer...Now what is the question?"

Walker is a special author (and a great speaker, FYI) who has really mastered how an author can have a successful online presence.  Her Facebook page has regular posts (and not just about upcoming books) and her blog is well-written and often showcases other excellent authors.  She also contributes regularly to the Readergirlz blog, which is another great resource I have in my RSS reader which helps me keep up with the latest and greatest in books.  I'm sure most libraries have a copy of this book, but for kindle owners, keep in mind the Kindle edition is only $2.51!  Bargain!
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