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Review: Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge”

More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal…

The Blind Assassin opens with one of the most memorable first lines in literary history. Laura Chase, tragic, strange and famous Laura Chase drove her car off a bridge.In her twilight years, Iris Chase is living on her own, her estranged daughter is dead, her husband too, her granddaughter is somewhere in Africa and wants nothing to do with her grandmother. How did it come to this?

While, at times, the story may be slow – after all, it’s almost a century of family life we’re talking about – Margaret Atwood’s writing is simply divine.   The narrative structure is strange and extraordinary at the same time. The timeline jumps from present-day Iris to the glory days of her family and the tragic years leading up to Laura’s death. Some parts of the story are told through newspaper clippings, others – through a novel inside a novel, written by Laura and published by Iris after her suicide.

We are left to assume that the main characters of the novel in question, called the Blind Assassin, are Laura and Alex Thomas. We are left to assume a lot of things. Without venturing into the spoiler zone, I should say that the ending of the novel is one of the most fulfilling plot twists that I’ve ever read. It radically changed my perception of the main characters and made me fall ardently in love with Margaret Atwood’s writing.

The Blind Assassin is the winner the 2000 Booker Prize.

Suite Francaise flight from Paris

Review: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.

Suite Francaise is an astonishing masterpiece, its rich and exquisite prose is perfect in its unfinished beauty. The circumstances of its creation and publication are truly remarkable, this is no overstatement. Written under the Nazi occupation by a Jewish-Ukrainian author Irene Nemirovsky, it was discovered more than half a century after her death in Auschwitz. Suite Francaise is, in fact, one of the earliest works of fiction about the occupation of France.

Born in Kiev, Irene Nemirovsky fled the Russian Revolution with her family, settling in France at the age of 16. Nemirovsky started writing in French and published a total of nine novels. A Storm in June and Suite Francaise were passed on to Nemirovsky’s daughters after the arrest of her husband Michael Epstein. Denise Nemirovsky discovered that her mother’s battered notebook contained a novel only in the 1990s.

It is a strange feeling, the realization that you’re reading a novel written almost at the time as the historical events unfolded. I couldn’t help but wonder that Irene Nemirovsky might have known some of the book characters, or rather the real people that could have inspired them, that some of the scenes from Suite Francaise may have happened around her.

The characters of Suite Francaise are connected by an intricate thread, their paths cross and collide, as the war and Nazi presence provide the perfect setting for the reveal of their true character. A Storm in June captures the flight from Paris. As the Nazis advance on the French capital, Parisian residents scramble to get out of the city. Fear, lies, petrol stealing, worries about personal goods and status while the enemy is knocking on their doors… Dolce covers the year in the life of an occupied town called Bussy. The residents are forced to host a German regiment, they learn to co-exist, accept and in some cases, see the enemy as mere men. The story of Lucille and German officer Bruno is beautifully heartbreaking. The recently-released Suite Francaise film follows the events recounted in Dolce. It is a pleasure to say that the adaptation turned out brilliantly, despite some minor plot changes.

A reviewer has once compared Suite Francaise to a bombed cathedral. There are no truer words to describe a book of such magnitude: “The ruined shell still soars to heaven, a reminder of the human spirit triumphing despite human destructiveness.”

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Review: Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel

War’s mess and muddle, the brutality and the inanity of fighting few have better captured this than Isaac Babel, who was a journalist with the Soviet First Cavalry Army. His unflinching portrayal of the murderous havoc of battle is offset by an unexpected and wry humour: having seen the fighting up close, Babel is able to find the funny side of war while depicting its bloody side in all its mesmerising and casual violence. The lyricism and bitterness that characterise the thirty-five short stories of Red Cavalry are stunningly reproduced in this new translation by the award-winning Boris Dralyuk.

Written in the 1920s, and based on his personal diaries and experiences during the Polish-Soviet war, Red Cavalry almost cost Isaac Babel his life. This is one of the most important things the reader should learn about the Red Cavalry.In Soviet Russia, literature could, in fact, kill… Isaac Babel’s short stories painted a great war far different from the propaganda reels of the Soviet regime and this made Red Cavalry undesirable. Legendary Soviet marshall Budyonny, under whom Babel served during the war and whose army was described on the pages of Red Cavalry, demanded the author’s execution.

Good deeds are done by good men. The revolution is the good deed of good men. But good men do not kill. So the revolution is the work of bad men. But the Poles, too, are bad men. So who will tell Gedali where’s the revolution and where’s the counter revolution?

Brutal cossacks, desecrated churches, Polish peasants hiding their horses in the forests, impoverished jews, acts of cowardice and senseless atrocities… Red Cavalry is a haunting account of a conflict that is oftentimes overlooked and largely unknown to those living beyond Eastern Europe. Babel’s majestic prose paints the wartime violence with a truly poetic beauty.

Red Cavalry was graciously provided by Steerforth Press through NetGalley. 

Overall rating : 4*

Gospel of Loki cover element Joanne Harris

Review: Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

With the right words you can build a world and make yourself king of it. […] After all, words are what remain when all the deeds have been done. Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead. All that’s why the King of Stories ended up being King of the gods; because writing history and making history are only the breadth of a page apart.

 Meet the most unreliable narrator ever, Loki, known as Wildfire, also known as the God of Mischief. Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris is a deliciously sarcastic retelling of Norse mythology, signed by Yours Trully, the trickster-in-chief. Loki recounts the days leading to Rangarok, the End of Days, which some of you have heard will be featured in one of the upcoming Marvel films. Spoiler, in the original myths everyone dies. How did the end came about? According to Loki, the transition from dog to god is only a revolution away, and fact is, the gods of Asgard are not exactly as noble and nice as history painted them to be.

Well, that’s history for you, folks. Unfair, untrue and for the most part written by folk who weren’t even there.

 Gospel of Loki explores the short-lived nature of trust, loyalties and friendship in Asgard. The lovechild of thunder, creature of Chaos, Loki is a mischievous liar, oftentimes trying to mess things up for his fellow Asgardians just for the fun of it.Odin tricks Loki out of chaos and brings him into the world of gods and men, he has no way back, and the All-Father knows that all too well.  Even when he’s being good, he is being blamed for everything odd that happens on Asgard. Acceptance and loyalty is fleeting in the realm of the Gods.

There are, always, two sides to every story. Witty, sarcastic and wickedly intelligent bad boy of Asgard tells the story of the land of men, gods and strange creatures through a series of adventures. He is undoubtedly somewhat wicked, a liar, adulterer and yet, Loki is not the sole maker of Asgard’s downfall. Odin, Frigga, Thor, Siff… every single one of them is no less to blame.

Friendship is overrated. Who needs friends when you can have the certitudes of hostility? You know where you stand with an enemy. You know he won’t betray you. It’s the ones who claim to be your friends that you need to beware of.

Overall note: 3,5*

Seraphina Cover

Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

The kingdom of Goredd: a world where humans and dragons share life with an uneasy balance, and those few who are both human and dragon must hide the truth. Seraphina is one of these, part girl, part dragon, who is reluctantly drawn into the politics of her world. When war breaks out between the dragons and humans, she must travel the lands to find those like herself—for she has an inexplicable connection to all of them, and together they will be able to fight the dragons in powerful, magical ways.As Seraphina gathers this motley crew, she is pursued by humans who want to stop her. But the most terrifying is another half dragon, who can creep into people’s minds and take them over.

“Powerful, fresh and imaginative” Seraphina, which I reviewed just last month (here), easily became one of the best reads of the year. Needless to say, I was absolutely ecstatic to learn that the second installment of the dilogy was less than a month away.

The quest to find the half-breeds scattered across the realms gives the readers an opportunity to further discover Rachel Hartman’s imaginary world. Intricate details, plot twists and confusing emotions about the book guaranteed.

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Review: City of Thieves by David Benioff

Twelve eggs to save a life. The story of adventure, survival and brutalities of Stalingrad siege from David Benioff, the producer of Game of Thrones. 

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. 

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Work in progress. Ivan Bartniczuk, his parents and his siblings

Ghosts of distant past: looking for relatives in 19th century Poland (Part I)

It’s almost midnight, and I’m supposed to be in bed, but my head is buzzing like a group of ravenous bumblebees because I found a picture of a graveyard monument. Yes, when you spend months holed up in a tiny room on the outskirts of Paris things could get even stranger. There, before my eyes, covered in green ivy, lay the tombstone of one 70-something Dimitry Bartniczuk, year of death 1912. My great-great-great-somebody from my mother’s side of the family. His grave was just at on the other side of the screen, and quite frankly, I was ecstatic about it.

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Dimitrii Bartniczuk, lived 78 years, died on January 28, 1912

Researching my Polish relatives became a personal question for two reasons. One – the fact that our family history – and the way people moved around countries – is not exactly the most common story you may hear. Blame it on the journalistic instincts, or the pure and enduring love of history, but the matter of people long dead yet not forgotten was too fascinating to let go. And the other…  The other reason shall remain not for print.

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