The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers by Kerri Turner

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This absorbing book took me completely by surprise. Not only is it a skilfully told story of a time in Russian history (the final years of the decadent Romanovs, and the rising rebellion among the workers as dissatisfaction and real anger towards the ruling classes, economic instability, food shortages, dreadful working conditions and war, grew worse), using two ballet dancers employed by the elite Imperial Russian Ballet as foils, it’s also a tragic tale of class difference, and the lengths those who were born with nothing will go to in order to ensure they don’t lose what they’ve gained. 

Luka Zhirkov is a young, up and coming dancer who has been given the chance of a lifetime when he’s asked to join the Imperial Ballet. For his father, a staunch member of the proletariat, who has already given one son to the civil war tearing Russia apart, Luka’s dancing career, where he mainly entertains capitalist elites, is a betrayal of class, family and country. 

When one of the principal dancers, Valentina Yershova, a woman born into poverty and whose talent and dalliances with rich protectors has allowed her to climb the ballet ladder, spies Luka, even she recognises his talent. But Luka hasn’t yet learned the rules that govern the ballet dancers behind the scenes – how who you know and associate with and who you share your body with is almost as important as skill. Disgusted and confused by the careless wealth of some of the dancers and those they choose to align themselves with, as well as their wilful ignorance about deteriorating social conditions for those who cannot afford to change them, Luka is nonetheless drawn to Valentina and his feelings for her begin to grow.

As great opportunities for both Luka and Valentina manifest, war and revolution follows, meaning they’ll soon be forced to make choices that will either grant them their every wish or tear them apart. 

Beautifully written, evocative and moving with characters both strong and flawed (which I love), this wonderful book and the ballet dancers at its heart explore a period of history and a country that for many of us remains mysterious. Petrograd (St Petersburg) is brought to life in all its hedonistic and dangerous glory. Ballet becomes a powerful metaphor for the struggles, passion and sacrifice the Russian people themselves make as their country plunges deeper into poverty and war, and those at the top attempt to continue with a decadent lifestyle that is fast becoming as dangerous as it is deplorable. Using the story of one of the most famous ballets, Swan Lake allegorically, Turner weaves the romance and tragedy of Odette and Prince Siegfried and the villainous Von Rothbart, cleverly throughout the novel. 

This is a photo I took inside the Alexandrinsky Theatre (mentioned in the novel) in St Petersburg (formerly, Petrograd). It is simply stunning. I saw my very first ballet there as well – appropriately, it was Swan Lake. Kerri’s novel brings all this to life.

One of the hallmarks of good historical fiction is that the author doesn’t only craft a marvellous tale, but you learn something about the past and the human condition in the process. Turner has done these things seamlessly and, in doing so, written a book that will, like its lead characters, dance its way into your heart. 


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The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

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The third and final book in the Rosie series, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion is an absolute delight. Focussing on the return of the Tillman’s along with their 11 year-old son, Hudson, to Australia after a stint in New York, the reader becomes immersed in their struggles to re-establish their lives and careers after so long away. While Don and Rosie muddle along fairly well, for young Hudson, change is catastrophic. In his usual pragmatic way, Don sets about turning Hudson’s problems into a solution by embarking on what he terms, The Hudson Project; the primary objective being to ensure Hudson learns the life skills necessary to both fit in socially and ease his path in school and life. 

But no matter how clever or resourceful a person is, even Don, or how passionate about a project, one can never account for humanity and different personalities, particularly those of young people. Don may care about this project more than any other, but does he possess the necessary skills to steer Hudson’s life in the right direction or is he the wrong captain for this ship?

Alternately funny, heart-aching, poignant and forensically observant, this is a cracker of a read that I wish I hadn’t finished, I was so enjoying being in Don, Rosie and Hudson’s world. The novel is about family, otherness, difference and the lengths we go to in order to fit in (or not), it’s also about tolerance, love and kindness – something the world seems to be in rather short supply of sometimes and which is refreshing to read about, even in fiction – especially when the results are so all-encompassing and inclusive. 

Cannot recommend this wonderful book enough!

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The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

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The Stone Circle is the 11th book in Elly Griffiths fabulous series featuring archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway and terse DI Nelson. Like its predecessors, it’s packed with mystery, complex interpersonal relationships and murder.

In this novel, a body is found buried in a recently unearthed stone circle. While the circle is of ancient origins the body definitely isn’t. Enter both Ruth and Nelson whose expertise is required to firstly age the body and then discover who the culprit is. When a cold case is reopened, it’s not long before suspects come to the fore. But when the most prominent of these is murdered, Nelson and his team have to work harder than ever before someone else is hurt – or worse. 

As usual, Griffiths excels in developing her characters – the regulars and even those introduced because of the central plot. Ruth, Kate, Nelson and his family’s dynamic becomes even more tangled and emotionally fraught as revelations and decisions regarding the future are made and then disregarded. I think Griffiths does real justice to the notion that it’s possible to love two people at once – two good people who don’t deserve to be hurt. While Nelson is torn between the two women in his life and his very different families, there’s no doubting his love for them or the fact he’s a good person who can make bad decisions (like other characters in the books). I also like that the women are represented as strong and proud, not passive vessels to Nelson’s wishes or desires. 

The ending to this novel feels a little rushed – not in terms of the plot, which is nicely played out, but in relation to the main recurring characters. I wish the editors had allowed Griffiths the chance to flesh it out just a little more. Nonetheless, I really look forward to seeing where Ruth, Nelson and the rest of the characters based around King’s Lynn (which really does see more than its fair share of buried bodies, surely?) takes us! 

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The Muse of Nightmares by Liani Taylor

My reading year commenced with this wonderful, heart-achingly lovely book. It took me so long to read and not only because I worked over Xmas New Year (see previous post) but because I wanted to savour every single word and delay the gratification of finishing the novel for as long as I possibly could. With good reason. Now it’s over, I am bereft.

The sequel to the evocative, poetic and enthralling (I know I am using hyperbole, but believe me, these books deserve it) Strange, the Dreamer, The Muse of Nightmares continues exactly where that novel reached its heart-in-throat conclusion.

I refuse to reveal any spoilers except to say that the tale of Lazlo Strange, Sarai and the other godspawn as well as the denizens of Weep is far from over. When Muse begins, turning what appeared to be tragedy into something more bearable, another terrible situation posing grave danger to all Sarai and Lazlo know and love surfaces.

Forced into actions that cause them and others consternation and pain, Lazlo, Sarai are forced to make deals with the enemy as they seek a solution that will not only save the city but themselves. Just when they think they have opened the lines of communication, another force arrives the threaten them. This is a force that has not only travelled across worlds to find them, but quite literally torn them apart and is bent on a bloody and terrible revenge. Nothing, not even the formidable powers of the godspawn or strength of the Tizerkane can stop it, not without making a terrible sacrifice.

Who or what will survive this latest threat hangs by the merest of threads as do the lives of those we’ve grown to know and love. Unable to prevent catastrophe or reason with a mind destroyed by pain and loss, Sarai and Lazlo have no choice but to risk everything, including each other. But even then, will it be enough to save those they love?

Just when you thought the world containing Weep, the godspawn, Seraphim, Tizerkane and the ugliness and cruelty of the gods as well as they gentle beauty of Sarai and Lazlo’s love could not be any more enchanting or action-packed, there’s this book. Page-turning, heart-churning and utterly captivating, Taylor brings her characters, their mystery and terrifying allure to life as only she can.

This story of gods, god-monsters, and the monstrous and wonderful humans who fear and loathe them, grabs the reader by both throat and heart and squeezes. With each page, you are pulled into their impossible reality and taken on a journey like no other. Taylor’s world building is sublime the way she develops her characters, explains their motivation, explores their thoughts and feelings is magnificent.

If you love beautiful stories told with the delicate and dreamy touch of a master story-teller, then this is a tale for you. My only regret, as I knew it would be, is that I have now finished. I hope Liani Taylor writes another one very soon.

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Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

This is the fourth instalment in Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling) detective series based on former war veteran and now PI, the fabulously named, Cormoran Strike. This book, Lethal White, picks up from the moment the last one ended – at Robin’s imminent wedding and will she/won’t she. From there, the novel then jumps to a year later, and a rather strained relationship between Strike and Robin has developed.

Before we can plume the depths of this, a new case presents itself, a new case that involves the blackmail of a current minister – the one responsible for the London Olympics as it happens. Seemingly unrelated to this is the strange tale of a young man who seeks Strike’s services to uncover the mystery of a murder he saw years earlier. Intrigued and concerned, Strike cannot let this young man’s request go, even if the story appears to be the product of a disordered mind.

As the case around the minister throws more leads that become increasingly complex and appear to be misdirections rather than aiding a resolution, it’s not until a murder occurs that Strike and Robin understand they’re dealing with desperate and dangerous people. So dangerous that, the closer they get to solving this tangled web others have weaved, the more other lives, including their own, are put in danger.

Once more, this is a slow-burn, gum-shoe detective story that relies heavily on old-fashioned plodding police and brain work rather than technological devices and DNA to be solved. Galbraith takes the reader into London, Westminster and the heart of dysfunctional families and relationships, including Strike’s and Robin’s in order to bring sense to this series of senseless crimes. Not only does London become as much a character as do the various homes and offices to which we’re privy, but class plays a big role as well. The way Galbraith captures the smells and sounds of the city or class differences and prejudices with just a word or brief description is magical.

Longer than the other Strike novels. I absolutely loved losing myself in Robin and Strike’s world and the differing viewpoints. Understanding how Robin and Strike regard each other, how they attribute certain motivation and even actions, is really well done. So too is seeing how they operate successfully and unsuccessfully in their relationships with others. Causing pain or having it inflicted upon them seems to be par for the course for these integrity-rich pair. You’ll find yourself bleeding for them as what’s apparent quickly to the reader takes longer to become clear to the one in the thick of it. Nevertheless, you champion their decisions and actions – even wrong ones – because you know they come from either a good place or they’re the right ones for them at that time. This is what Galbraith has given the reader – characters that live and breathe on the page and thus ring emotionally true. We care deeply.

Equal parts frustrating and rewarding, the further we get into the main tale, the more complicated and twisty it becomes, but never does Galbraith lose the plot. She also manages to expose the vulnerabilities and fears of her main characters without weakening them – on the contrary, their foibles give them additional strengths and make them so very human.

I was so disappointed when I finished this book. Not so much because the plot was amazing (which it was), but because it’s so very easy to care for Strike and Robin and want to be a part of their world. I guess even for a short time is better than none.

But now I have to wait so long for the next book… again, waiting is better than having nothing to wait for. Another fabulous read.

 

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