The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander

the kitchen boy

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar

Robert Alexander (Adult Fiction)

“My name is Mikhail Semyonov.  No, my real name—the one given to me at birth—was Leonid Sednyov, and I was known as Leonka.  Please forgive my years of lies, but now I tell you the truth.  What I wish to confess is that I was the kitchen boy in the Ipatiev House where the Tsar and Tsarista, Nikolai and Aleksandra, were imprisoned…and I saw them shot.  Trust me, believe me, when I say this: I am the last living witness and I alone know what really happened that awful night…just as I alone know where the bodies of the two missing children are to be found.  You see, I took care of them with my own hands.”

Mikhail (Misha) Semyonov is ninety-four years old.  He’s a man who’s tired of living with the knowledge of what he has caused, what he has seen, and what he has done.  Before he dies, he begins dictating his story into a small black tape recorder that will be given to his granddaughter upon his death.  Misha desires neither understanding nor absolution.  He merely wants the truth to finally be known and perhaps, at last, it will.

It’s one thing to read about the execution of the Romanov family during the late-night/early hours of July 16-17, 1918.  The information gleaned from a history book or online is rather antiseptic—a blurb here, a mention there.  On the contrary, what we get from Robert Alexander is an emotional, personal, and in-depth portrayal of a father, a mother, and their five children.  We get a glimpse of Nikolai Aleksandrovich and Aleksandra Fyodorovna not as Tsar and Tsarista, but as a loving husband and wife and doting parents.  Viewing them in this light makes reading about their horrific and heinous murders all the more gut-wrenching and abhorrent.  They are not merely line items, but flesh and blood who love, hate, fear, and trust.  Because of this humanistic portrayal of the royal family and the two weeks leading up to their execution, we almost forget that this is based on fact, and we futilely hold out hope for a courageous midnight rescue or a perilous, well-planned escape…although history reminds us that neither will happen.

This book held a few surprises for me.  First, the number of secret notes, letters, and diaries that not only survived, but were preserved.  I found this astonishing given the Bolsheviks’ ruthless intent to wholly wipe out the very existence of the Romanovs.  It was also interesting to learn how the Romanovs planned to smuggle their vast family fortune once they acquired liberation (I will not elaborate further should this be new to you as well).  Third, the ending was purely unexpected and opened up a whole new prospect of “What if….”.  Just when you think you’ve reached the end of the story, Alexander gives us one final jolt that depletes the room of oxygen and leaves us wishing that his work of fiction was indeed fact.  What if…

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo (J Historical Fiction)

A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy   

Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters.  Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts:  Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop.  It is 1940s London and right after the war.  Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry.  But Michael doesn’t mind much.  In fact, he likes being different, being special.  Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him:  his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war.  But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.

A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army.  Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave.  Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin.  Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages.  He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.

In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.”  Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter & Me by Lorilee Craker (Memoir)

anne of green gables my daughter and me

Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter & Me

Lorilee Craker (Adult Memoir)

“What’s an orphan?”  This spontaneous and innocent question from her seven-year old daughter stopped Lorilee Craker in her tracks.  Phoebe had asked it during their bedtime reading of Anne of Green Gables.  But as Craker explains, “The word orphan is six letters fraught with baggage.”  Just like Anne Shirley, Craker herself had been adopted, as was her daughter, Phoebe.  Three women (four if you count Anne’s creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery, who herself was adopted) sharing a bond of abandonment, loneliness, and exclusion, but discovering that just beyond the bend await friendship, joy, love, and a sense of belonging.

Craker describes Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter & Me as “part memoir and part Anne super-fan book”.  For ardent fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables’ series (myself included), this book serves as a fond (and perhaps long overdue) reunion with our beloved Anne Shirley, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, Gilbert Blythe, and the rest of our dear friends in Avonlea.  Craker uses excerpts from Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island to introduce chapters dealing with friendship, bullying, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, and loss.  Although society’s views on adoption, adoptees, and adoptive parents have changed over the decades, the feelings Anne Shirley experiences at the beginning of the twentieth century remain just as relevant today.  Who can’t relate to feeling not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not tall enough…shall I go on?  Anne Shirley transcends time, region, and language to show that we all long to be accepted, respected, and loved.

Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter & Me is more than just a memoir.  It is a love letter to God, orphans, adoptive parents, Lucy Maud Montgomery, fans, and a little red-headed foundling who is all “spirit, fire, and dew”.  Craker writes, “There is a crack in everyone—that’s how the light gets in.”  A fracture that when the light hits it, allows us to show mercy, offer forgiveness, experience love, and accept grace.  Perhaps in that respect, there is a little orphan in each of us.

Craker reminded me of the thing that I most admire about Anne Shirley and that is her unfailing perseverance and unwavering optimism.  Even after falling off a roof, dyeing her hair green, and inadvertently intoxicating her bosom friend, it’s our Anne (with an “e”) that said, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”  Yes, Anne.  It is very nice.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord (J)

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson   

Bette Bao Lord (Juvenile Fiction)

Bandit is confused.  What would make Mother smirk, Grandmother cry, and Grandfather angry?  The House of Wong is certainly unsettled, but why?  Bandit quickly learns that her father will not be returning to Chungking.  Instead, she and her mother will be going to him…to America.  But Bandit isn’t worried because no bad luck will come her way.  This is the year of the Boar and travel, adventure, and double happiness await her.  Soon, Bandit will begin her journey from China to San Francisco to her eventual home in Brooklyn, New York.  She will travel thousands of miles with a new name and new dreams.  But will America be all that Bandit hopes it will be?

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is a charming and humorous story largely based on Bette Bao Lord’s own experiences as a newcomer to America.  Bandit (who adopts an American name of Shirley Temple Wong) endures teasing, bullying, and rejection that often comes with simply being different.  Despite her difficulties with fitting in, she is constantly reminded by her mother of the importance of maintaining your self-respect despite struggling through ridicule: “Always be worthy, my daughter, of your good fortune.  Born to an illustrious clan from an ancient civilization of China, you now live in the land of plenty and opportunity.  By your conduct show that you deserve to enjoy the best of both worlds.”  Her mother’s words serve as a valuable reassurance to Bandit that her past life in China need not be forgotten or sacrificed for her present life in America.  She is much richer for having both.

Despite her trials and torments, Bandit makes friends through America’s favorite pastime—baseball—and its formidable hero, Jackie Robinson and realizes that things are not always what they appear to be.  On the day Bandit gains the unlikeliest of allies, she recalls something that her grandfather had told her many times: “Things are not what they seem.  Good can be bad.  Bad can be good.  Sadness can be happiness.  Joy, sorrow.”  In the year of the Boar, Bandit discovers the pride in being yourself and the value of friends who accept you just the way you are.  Double happiness.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.harpercollins.com

 

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie (Adult Fiction)

It was in early 1971 when two “city youths”—ages 17 and 18—were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky.  Boyhood friends, they were to be re-educated as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.  If they were fortunate, they would be reunited with their families after two years.  But they were not the offspring of average parents.  Instead, their parents—professional, respected, educated—were classed as enemies of the people, and their chances of release currently stood at three in a thousand.  So, the two spent their days laboring in the paddy fields, working in the mines, or carrying human and animal waste on their backs.  But one fateful day, their village headman sent them to the district of Yong Jing.  That journey would culminate with the princess of Phoenix Mountain, a miller, and an author named Honoré de Balzac.

Dai Sijie himself was re-educated and spent between 1971 to 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province.  His experiences undoubtedly gave this novel its authenticity, depth, and richness.  I knew very little of Mao Zedong’s 10-year movement to preserve Chinese Communism through the cultural eradication of capitalism and tradition.  Needless to say, the results were disastrous: economically, politically, and societally.  Sijie gives us a glimpse of the isolation, fear, and hysteria suffered by those who were sent away through the eyes of our 17-year old narrator (unnamed) and his 18-year friend, Luo.  When the two come across a hidden collection of translated Western classics, their worlds expand as they are introduced to the foreign feelings of lust, jealousy, revenge, and honor.  Matters are further complicated when they share these novels with the local tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.

I truly enjoyed this book and found it as light and airy as a basting stitch.  It read like a well-crafted fable and the scenes were sewn together seamlessly.  It was a delightful read that reinforces the idea that the written word is often just as powerful suppressed as it is unleashed.  Albert Einstein said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  So is a lot.”  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reminds us that once a book is opened, so is the mind and when the mind is opened, the heart takes flight.  Perhaps for this reason alone, there are still those in the world who wish books to remain closed.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends by J. B. Cheaney (YA Historical Fiction)

I Dont Know How the Story Ends

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends

J. B. Cheaney (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.”

Matilda Ransom was tired of the dreariness of Seattle and the restlessness of her daughters and decided that the three of them would spend the summer in California.  Isobel (Izzy) wasn’t too keen on the idea, but between her father being in France serving in the Great War and her constant bickering with her little sister, Sylvie, her mother’s mind was made up.  The family was off to visit Aunt Buzzy in Los Angeles.  Izzy would soon find herself pulled away from the security of her books and thrust into the world of early Hollywood—filled with silent screen stars, bigger-than-life directors, Keystone Cops, a moving panorama, and a headstrong boy determined to make a name for himself in film.  For a girl who loves to tell stories, this summer would undoubtedly provide Izzy with more than enough content.

Historical Fiction is my favorite genre, so when I see an interesting topic written especially for younger readers, I am beyond thrilled.  Being surrounded by everything digital, it was a joy to escape to Hollywood’s earliest years and learn more about the world of the silent screen.  Cheaney introduces her readers to such directorial deity as D. W. Griffith, Mark Sennett, and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as screen legends Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.  Cheaney allows us to be a part of the action by giving us a first-hand look at staging, lighting, makeup, filming, and post-production editing.  We often forget just how skilled and talented these early filmmakers were and I, for one, am grateful to her for reminding us of their groundbreaking brilliance.

In addition to the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, this book also examines the reality of a world at war and the brave men who returned home, but forever left a part of themselves on the battlefield.  During a particularly difficult moment, Izzy’s friend, Sam, once said to her, “Some film can’t be cut” meaning that some things just can’t be fixed and some matters can’t be undone.  While the entire book is informative and entertaining, it is the last few pages that are the most touching, emotional, and poignant.  For the first time, Izzy sees her story told and knows exactly how it ends.  Izzy’s Aunt Buzzy once told her, “Life is like that—the strangest or most unwelcome, even the saddest things that happen can come to make sense in the end.”  Like the movies in early Hollywood, Izzy’s story didn’t need any sound.  All it needed was a picture…a picture of what true love really looked like.

“Remember how small the world was before I came along?  I brought it all to life: I moved the whole world onto a 20-foot screen.”—D. W. Griffith, Director, Writer, Producer.  Thank you for making the world a whole lot bigger Mr. Griffith.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath (Adult Fiction)

Esther Greenwood knew something was wrong with her that summer, and it wasn’t just the electrocution of the Rosenbergs or all the non-stop talk surrounding it.  She was supposed to be having the time of her life.  She was in New York and living the high life—a far cry from her 19 years living in a small New England town.  It was the summer of 1953 and what Esther knew for certain was that one of her troubles was Doreen.

Published in 1963, The Bell Jar was poet Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel.  Weeks after her book’s publication, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30.  Given that Plath’s personal struggles with money and depression parallels those of her main character, it is understandable why many view The Bell Jar as being semi-autobiographical.  Although this book deals with grave and bleak issues, Plath’s poetic prowess shines through giving readers a story that is poignant yet subtly lighthearted.  Although Plath’s future as a novelist would never be fully realized, she managed to give us a heroine that epitomized the women of her day.  The feminist movement saw its beginnings in 1963 and Plath put Esther right on the front lines—questioning societal views on conformity, conservatism, femininity, marriage, and family.

Much has changed since the release of The Bell Jar, but the increasing number of individuals diagnosed with depression or anxiety, as well as the rise in suicides, continue to make this novel timely and relevant.  Throughout the story, told in first-person narrative, Esther often describes herself as existing inside a bell jar: continually experiencing isolation and detachment from the outside world, always feeling that she is on display and expected to be more than she is or ever will be, and constantly struggling to be “perfect”.  When Esther learned that the famous novelist, Philomena Guinea, would be willing to pay for her treatment and education, Esther could conjure up neither gratitude nor any amount of relief: “I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing.  If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Esther Greenwood is a young woman trapped in a life that she is tired of living, yet afraid of leaving.  During her story, I often found myself silently cheering those times when the seal of her bell jar was lifted just enough to allow a bit a fresh air to seep through.  It was during these times that I hoped Esther, and others who suffer under their own bell jar, would be able to momentarily experience a feeling of joy, worth, and hope.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com