Tag Archives: The Patriots

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2018: Part One

Cover imageThere’s an embarrassment of paperback riches this February. Lots to occupy those of us stuck in the depths of winter beginning with one of my books of last year. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him, Lottie finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now.

Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc lets slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction which also made it on to my books of 2017 list.

As did Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees a collection of short stories which enlightens those of us fortunate enough to have lived our lives in a benign political climate, no matter what we mayCover image think of our government. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. His beautifully polished eloquent collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience giving it a quiet power.

Loosely based on a true story, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots is a doorstopper of a novel which explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008.  Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.

Emily Ruskovich’s debut, Idaho, is entirely different. Six-year-old May and nine-year-old June have had only themselves and their parents for company in their remote mountain home but June no longer wants to play the elaborate games that have kept them whispering together for years. The afternoon the family sets out in their pickup to collect wood will end with an appalling crime which will leave one child dead and the other missing. There’s no black and white in this strikingly written novel, no neat resolution and it’s all the better for that.

Cover image Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is also about families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer.

That’s it for the first batch of February’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five titles and to a more detailed synopsis for Perfect Little World should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles they’re here and here. More paperbacks shortly…

The Patriots by Sana Krasikov: Here we go again…

Cover imageThose much over-used epithets ‘epic’, ‘sweeping’ and ‘saga’ are useful signals when they crop up in press releases, semaphoring that the book in question is probably not for me. To be fair, they’re not words used to describe Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots but just for once they seem appropriate. This doorstopper of a novel, apparently loosely based on a true story, explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008.

Florence is an idealistic young woman, attracted by the equality she thinks socialism offers during the Depression when American women are being shown the way back into the kitchen after their wartime efforts. Bright and numerate, she finds a job working for Amtorg, who promote trade between America and Russia, where she falls in love with Sergey. When she decides to turn her back on her comfortable Jewish family and travel to Russia after he goes home, she knows that it’s not just idealism that is carrying her off on this perilous journey. On board ship she meets Essie with whom she forges a friendship. When her pursuit of Sergey proves fruitless, Florence settles herself in Moscow where she talks her way into a job with the Soviet State Bank. She meets Essie again, then Leon a sassy fellow American working for the Soviet news agency with whom she becomes both romantically and professionally involved, working together as translators for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Life is hard but Florence and Leon remain committed to the cause until anti-Semitism creeps in; their past work – once lauded – is now used against them. With a child to protect, Florence finds herself cooperating with the authorities in ways she could never have imagined, and then betrayed. Many years later, the Cold War long over, her son is working as a liaison officer for an American oil company. His frequent visits to Russia enable him to keep an eye on his son’s plans to be ‘a cowboy on the frontiers of private enterprise’. When Julian questions the judgement of his own Russian contacts it becomes clear that the USSR may be long gone but the old ways are alive and well.

Krasikov unfolds her story through two narrative strands spanning more than seventy years, shifting her perspective backwards and forwards between Florence and Julian. It’s an ambitious structure – all too easy to lose control of it in such a long novel but Krasikov deftly pulls it off although Julian’s first person narrative is less absorbing than Florence’s. The tension between Florence’s apparently obdurate idealism and Julian’s cynical pragmatism is well drawn, and its resolution satisfying. Krasikov’s depiction of the USSR under Stalin with its labyrinthine surveillance systems in which no one can be trusted, even the closest of friends, is both convincing and chilling. We’d all like to think we’d be the ones to stand firm, steer well clear of betrayal, but who knows what any of us would do in such circumstances. Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.

Books to Look Out for in March 2017: Part One

Cover imageThere’s a timeline flowing neatly through this first batch of March titles, beginning with Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk set in 1792 in her home town of Bristol with the French Revolution still playing out across the Channel. Recently married, Lizzie comes from a Radical background but her husband is a property developer whose future prosperity relies on stability rather than the prospect of war and social unrest. John believes not only that Lizzie is too independent and questioning but that she belongs to him by law and must live according to his wishes. A new Dunmore is always a joy and the scene seems set nicely here for an exploration of political and domestic tensions.

Over half a century later, the beginning of the American Civil War is the setting for George Saunders’ first novel Lincoln in the Bardo. The basis of Saunders’ story is the death of Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son and its effects on his father, rumoured to have frequently visited his son’s grave despite the war ravaging his country. ‘From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying’ according to the publisher. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that but it’s the novel’s central question – ‘how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?’ – together with Saunders’ reputation that makes this one attractive.

Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots moves us on to the 1930s where Florence is desperate to escape her Brooklyn family. A new job and relationship take her to Moscow but she later finds she has no way back. Florence’s actions have repercussions that reverberate down through the generations as her son will find when his own work forces him to investigate his mother’s past. ‘Epic in sweep and intimate in detail, The Patriots is both a compelling portrait of the entangled relationship between America and Russia, and a beautifully crafted story of three generations of one family caught between the forces of history and the consequences of past choices’ says the publisher which sounds much more interesting than your average family saga.Cover image

Ayòbámi Adébáyò‘s Stay with Me takes us to Nigeria in the turbulent 1980s where Yejide is desperate for a child. She’s tried everything she knows, from medical consultations to pilgrimage, with no success until finally her in-laws insist on a new wife for their son. ‘Stay with Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. Ayòbámi Adébáyò weaves a devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood’ says the publisher which sounds almost too heartrending to bear. I spotted Naomi over at The Writes of Women raving about this on Twitter last December and so my hopes are high.

That’s it for the first tranche of March goodies. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Part two follows shortly…