Falling in Love with Russia 🇷🇺 A Review of David Green’s “Midnight in Siberia”

Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of RussiaMidnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got into this whole Russia thing some months ago when I was investigating my family’s Croatian history. My interest grew from just the Croats to the Balkans and finally the entire Slavic realm.

Ultimately, I ended up in Russia. (Don’t we all?)*
(*well technically not true, but it was too cool not to say it and anyway, aren’t we in Cold War II anyway, so yeah… I’m saying it.)

So I started reading Russian history. I started learning Cyrillic and the Russian language (да!). I watched Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic 1944 epic Ivan the Terrible. I fell in love with the Russian rock band Lyube (listen to my fave Russian tunes here 🎶). I spazzed over the World Cup in Moscow (and rooted for Croatia, Russia, and England. GO VATRENI!). Also, I fell head over heels for Ivan Braginski (but really, how could you not?).

Ivan Braginski

I poked in a lot of Russian books in my time under the Slavic spell. I fairly raided my library for good ones (that didn’t mention Putin by the title’s third word). I wanted to hear about Russia–not the politics (necessarily), not the government, not the intrigue, not the spying. Not Putin. I wanted Russia. Who are the people, what are they like? What is the nation looking for, where is it going? What is it about the Russian soul, about its love for pain and poetry?

I read portions of the incredibly fascinating Russia in Search of Itself, and then landed on David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia. This book had it all–the humanity of Russia, the vulnerability of Russia, the toughness and strength of Russia, the pensiveness and the laughter, the confusion and the nostalgia. But most importantly, it has the everyday and the ordinary, the machinations of life across a nation that has so much to give and yet so few ways to give it.

Greene travels across the Siberian expanse in search of that aforementioned Russian soul, and comes away with an experience that is not simplified, not glorified, not vilified. The people aren’t after Western-style democracy; the 1990s failed experiment put an end to that. They’re often nostalgic for Soviet times when education and health were more or less guarantees (even if the payoff was personal freedoms). They don’t like the uncertainty of their current lives; they are sometimes afraid, and often find themselves enduring, rather than living–as we in the US define living, anyhow, in our mostly quite privileged lives, privileged meaning you can start a business, abide by the rules, and expect the government to be predictably fair with you; you can go to medical school and not fear that you will be drafted for obligatory duty; you can get a train ticket without a maniacal hassle of unpredictable schedules, pricing, and seating.

In Russia, things are different. At times you realize their system–of justice, of finance, of politics–is so deeply flawed, and yet there’s a beauty in the endurance and doggedness of the people themselves, a people that has learned to live with change and troubles from the Siberian steppe to the ever-shifting and ever-distant governmental heads.

This book has made me fall in love with Russia, the place, and Russia, the people. I won’t quickly forget what one youth said, fresh from brutal service in the Russian army. He is tough, but crumbles into tears as he says, “Our government oppresses us… but we love it. Our country–we love it.” And then I come back to the tight group of elderly widows, the Buranovo Babushkas, who won runner-up in Eurovision 2012, and who each had a story of hardship, tenacity, and tragedy to tell: “You know we have our land, our soil, our dreams, our goals…. There was a time when we had to work. Right now? It’s time for us to sing.”

To me, that is Russia.
Я влюблен в тебя Россия влюблен––I’m in love with you, Russia, in love.


No More Ms Nice Girl — And I Darken by Kiersten White

And I Darken (The Conqueror's Saga, #1)And I Darken by Kiersten White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kiersten White pulls off something truly remarkable in this YA alternative history novel. Several things in fact. She makes an unfamiliar setting (the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s) compelling and riveting, with a solid grasp of the region’s politics and religious practices. White crafts a female heroine who is unapologetically violent, fearless, and ambitious, and makes us care about her with just the right touches of vulnerability and brokenness. White realistically details emotional challenges of living as a homosexual young adult in this historical period. And finally, she presents friendship and loyalty in all its forms, from jealousy to love to deathless devotion.

The book actually took me a while to get through — it’s really a good idea to read it through in a short time in order to recall all the names and places. But the payoff is truly worth it. The character dynamics are spot-on, especially as the book gets going, as we are treated to a truly compelling trio of friends, each with a solid set of identities about who they are and what they want as individuals. The most important of these is of course our heroine Lada, the fiercest female this side of history. Her character is sharply drawn, beautifully damaged, and gloriously invincible.

I only wish the cover for this book hadn’t fallen prey to the use of pinks, purples, and flowers to pigeonhole it as a YA “girl” book, when so clearly it deserves an image of a blood-soaked battlefield, with Lada vicious and triumphant upon a heap of Ottoman soldiers — the only kind of image worthy of her ferocity and fearlessness.

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Capturing that Childlike Star Wars Magic Again in Beware the Power of the Dark Side!

Beware the Power of the Dark Side! (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)Beware the Power of the Dark Side! by Tom Angleberger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book surprised me in so many ways. Its tone, its insight, its author’s note (this man loves Star Wars so much it makes my eyes misty I swear). He’s got humility, and you suddenly realize how important that is for a writer of licensed material to have. This is a writer I can trust to handle the characters and people close to my heart.

Alright, here we go.

This is unquestionably my favorite book to come out of the rebooted canon of Star Wars so far. Why?

Tom Angleberger loves Star Wars with a child’s purity and passion, but he writes with an ironic insight that captures powerful, subtle layers of characterization and thematic importance, leaving no character untouched by an aside for motivations.

He is a true fan and with that love he gives everyone dignity, credit, and depth. On top of that there’s humor (the footnotes are golden), his prose sparkling with all the wide-eyed horror, cheek, and excitement only a child could experience, yet with the knowing thoughtfulness of an adult.

Let’s get back to that character and thematic insight…

There’s (albeit bite-sized) chapter-long contemplations dedicated to so many characters and events. We see Jerjerrod, not an evil man, but full of fear (and paperwork!), and we see through the littlest people working on the Death Star how easy evil is done by the simplest of actions that seem so very innocent. We see Yoda’s deft pathos, Luke’s anger, how the truth gave Vader a great power over Luke. We see Luke at Jabba’s palace, with the perfect mix of confusion, confidence, and conviction. We see Jabba, a great, evil, vicious heap, the essence of disgust… “Ah yes, now we come to the point where Jabba simply must be described.” We see how Mon Mothma stepped in as Leia’s parents in so many ways, and how the Ewoks can be pretty badass after all (re the Ewok council of war: “Things are said that are not cute.” Bless this fourth-wall-breaking, tongue-in-cheek, I’m-being-very-serious-and-yet!)

There are lines in this book I wish I could save forever. Angleberger has a talent for finding seemingly unconnected events and pointing out the thoughtful irony in them. All said with an absolute minimum of words and a joyous playfulness. It reminds me of what effective characterization can be achieved through the quality of brevity in style.

Return of the Jedi: Beware the Power of the Dark Side! is serious, hilarious, full of heart, pure joy, and thoughtful reflection. I think its magic comes from how much Angleberger loves the material and strove to bring his childhood love to life again, with the wide-eyed wonder that makes the same story new again.

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Heir to the Empire, what a Star Wars novel supposed to look like

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ever since stepping into Star Wars, I’ve been dabbling in the (old and new) Expanded Universe books and comics. There’s so much to read about, so many people who truly love Star Wars who’ve written amazing things in it, and right now I’m almost tempted to make a series on my Adventures in Star Wars. Anyway, so far Timothy Zahn is the gold standard for SW novels. Here’s why.

I don’t even know where to start with my outright love for this book and Zahn’s writing. So many licensed books (and sequels) get things wrong. They’re out-of-character, uninventive, and a disrespect to the original story that inspired them. But this book gets it right. It develops familiar characters with dignity and gravity, and invents new, three-dimensional characters that carry a vast presence on the page.

We see Luke Skywalker with the same quiet, serious conviction that defined his arc in Return of the Jedi, but facing new fears as he questions his ability to be the Jedi his masters were, with no one to teach him but his own instincts and grounded morality. We see Han Solo, still as wry and witty as ever, but with the added sense of responsibility for not only his new wife but his unborn children. Leia holds her own, under attack by mysterious assassins, while learning the ways of the Force and her new lightsaber (oh how I wish she would have still become a Jedi in the Disney canon…). Characters are not taken for granted and are written with introspective awareness of their own journeys and their own beliefs. This is everything a Star Wars book needs to be to do justice to the incredible characters that gave life to the original. I am in love.

Zahn’s brilliant grasp on understanding a character’s core spills over into his new creations, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Grand Admiral Thrawn, and the dark Jedi Joruus C’baoth. Foundational characters in the (now uncrowned) Star Wars Expanded Universe. And no wonder. None of them act out of simple hatred or rage, despite playing the “bad guys” of the story. He writes them with a surety of beliefs and conviction, clear and purposed goals, and complex motivations. They are people, with the nuances that come with that distinction.

Zahn is effortless with the concepts that make this story as a whole so vastly well-rounded. He’s got military strategy down like an expert — Thrawn is a real commander, the kind that could lead a successful army in real life… the guy’s a genius tactician, psychologist, and a great leader. The dogfights and battles spark of tangible reality and down-to-earth strategics, with physics a very real presence in so many tactics employed by Luke and others. Zahn’s got economy, he’s got politics, he’s got a stunning imagination for fantastic, but scientifically-grounded world-building (such as Lando’s walking city).

The details here aren’t arbitrary and we don’t get any lame references to nerf nuggets, hit singles, and throw-in-a-holo-prefix to create a world (sorry Heir to the Jedi is still my standard for a bad Star Wars novel). Instead, there’s logistics to Zahn’s worlds, unassuming uniqueness in his invention of terms and customs.

And then there’s the plot and humor. Zahn’s sense of comedy is so low-key and situational. Somehow he makes grand tense scenes like the ones between Thrawn and C’baoth both full of bone fide suspense and dignity, and equal parts squabbling crack. It’s utterly brilliant. The plot doesn’t try to reach beyond itself or be too mind-blowing, but is based on a sense of logistics with the new Republic and the scraps of the old Empire. Han is out trying to recruit smugglers to aid the Republic shipping and economics. Thrawn is recruiting the dark Jedi C’baoth to mentally unify the fleet into efficiency (while planning for his big attack). Elements fall together with insane (and sometimes humorous) genius, and build up with suspense and mystery. It’s small scale enough to feel like the little people that populate Star Wars, epic enough to feel like the largest ILM battle sequences.

The old Expanded Universe might have been scrapped, but to me this stuff is canon. It captures more of the heart and soul of the characters and the story of Star Wars than so many other books, and I only hope they use the template of deft characterization here to define what’s coming in the EU.

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Finding Nimoy in “I Am Spock”

I Am SpockI Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started reading this book because of Nimoy’s passing early this year. I wanted to know more about the man who seemed so wise, so emotional, and so caring. The guiding quote to his life I had was a statement by Zachary Quinto, “Leonard had a way of communicating that was never pedantic — he was never trying to teach, and yet he lived with such completeness that there was wisdom in everything he said.”

And that is what I found within this book. His is an elegant way of mind, the way he navigates the humor and philosophical ironies of life (such as the book-length banter with Spock on whether the two of them are one or distinct). His is an honest, approachable voice, and many times I have felt like cradling into his warm prose. He talks about his philosophy, how he honed the character Spock, how he dealt with fans, and how he helped create the stories of the Star Trek films (always fun to read behind-the-scenes goodies – the fun and the challenges). I loved hearing about his relationship with William Shatner, both feud and friendship. His passion to keeping Spock’s dignity and character as pure as he could throughout the run of the franchise speaks a lot about his character and the maturity he has. He is respectful, understanding, dispassionate and yet full of emotion and love. This book carries you through his mind, his soul, and it is effortless, and sometimes I wondered how deep I was actually getting to his heart when I realized, this calmness, this serenity, and the gentleness of his way of looking at life… that’s his heart and I was there all along.

I respect and adore this man so much. He has been a comfort, a haven, and an inspiration. He hoped that, sometimes, people would think of him when they think of Spock. Well I do. And I will continue to do so, because the man is truly as inspiring as the character is compelling.

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Cressida Cowell’s penultimate How to Train Your Dragon adventure: leadership and the risk it entails

How To Train Your Dragon: How to Betray a Dragon's HeroHow To Train Your Dragon: How to Betray a Dragon’s Hero by Cressida Cowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I love most about these books by Cressida is the power of the moral in them, the poetry of the language, and the spark of life and wit in the characters. This one is no exception. We find such strong moral themes, again, with dark events so daring in a children’s book. This is truly an epic deeper than probably even the film sequel can match, just because of the huge history created by a series of many characters’ and ancestors’ histories. Moral power cropping up sentence after sentence, especially at the beginning, and the Prologue, where the theme of the testing of a Hero first appears. It’s not easy to be a Hero, and a true one is created by challenge and hardship, like a sword in the smith — a hotter fire could either make or break a sword, or a Hero. It’s a complicated moral complexity that runs rich in this, and many, of her books.

The enduring theme of mercy is tested — does Hiccup save Snotlout from the dragons, or does he leave this bully and traitor to a fate he deserves? Maybe he has changed, or maybe he should save a human being from danger no matter if he is on your side or not. The moral complexity continues, in Cressida showing us how even the motives of the vicious Dragon Rebellion can be understood. Is it right for the humans to extinguish the dragons to save their own race? Just as the dragons wish to eradicate the humans to preserve the dragon extinction they foresee with the evil inherent in humanity? Cressida points out how being a Hero, being that great Leader isn’t something to desire lightly. In fact, the truly mature and brave should fear the role. Because Kings and Heroes are the ones to take both the guilt and responsibility that such leadership entails. Hiccup does not want to be a King, because he finally sees the true greatness of courage it requires, and yet he knows he must seize that destiny, because it is better to take that guilt and pain to keep evil men away from that power.

*mild spoilers begin*
A parting word must be said for Snotlout, for his arc is truly breathtaking. From the old kid days of throwing Hiccup’s face into the sand, calling him names, we get a revelation from him that culminates and explains all his motives those years ago til now, and how he became the villain he is today, and his reasons are as human as any other man’s, and we come away only sympathetic to what he has become. The maturity in dealing with Snotlout’s actions is beautiful, and the way Hiccup acts in regards to him is truly worthy of a King. Forgiveness, giving second and third chances, giving someone love so that their hatred gives them no satisfaction… it’s all wrapped in a brilliant package steeped with the history of eleven books spanning the childhoods of these characters.
(I can’t forget to mention the Toothless twist. The humblest receive the greatest reward, and all Hiccups own the greatest dragon of them all. And the new dragon, Hogfly, totally stole the show.)
*mild spoilers end*

This is a story as moving as any proper dramatic narrative, and it’s one worthy of admiration for the characters and the actions that define a true Hero.

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“How to Be a Pirate” by Cressida Cowell Review

How to Be a Pirate (Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, #2)How to Be a Pirate by Cressida Cowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one was more powerful than the first book in the series (incredible as that may seem). Our hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III gets into even deeper life-and-death troubles, as he learns to sword fight and grow selfless for his future tribe. The three epic battle scenes were crazy good and terribly engaging. The humor was infectious, and the depth at the end hit home hard. The first book taught the meaning of heroism, this one teaches the folly of greed and the glory of self-denial. Give Cressida Cowell a huge hand of applause, to pull of beauty and crazy humor in a kid’s book that some grown-ups would do well to take to heart.

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